Boeing’s Starliner space capsule landed in the New Mexico desert Wednesday, completing a six-day mission in which it finally reached the International Space Station and that could lead to flights with astronauts.
The capsule, without any crew on board, touched down as scheduled at 6:49 p.m. Eastern time at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico under a trio of parachutes. Air bags cushioned the landing.
The landing was the last step of a crucial test for Boeing and NASA, which required the aerospace company to prove it could safely fly the vehicle to the station and back autonomously before allowing it to fly astronauts.
The return flight went smoothly, NASA and Boeing said, from undocking with the space station, then firing its thrusters to deorbit and entering the atmosphere. As it plunged back toward Earth, its heat shield endured temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Just a beautiful touchdown in White Sands this evening,” Lauren Seabrook, a Boeing spokesperson, said on the live broadcast of the landing.
She added that the spacecraft landed about three-tenths-of-a-mile southeast of the landing site, “which is basically a bull’s eye,” she said.
It is unclear, however, when the first crewed flight would happen.
On its way to the station, two of its main thrusters cut off after sensors recorded problems. Backups kicked in without delay, putting the spacecraft on the right path to the station, but once it got close to the station, two other, smaller thrusters, used to position the spacecraft for docking, also had problems, Boeing said. In addition, the spacecraft’s thermal control system, used to keep the spacecraft at the right temperature, also failed.
Despite those challenges, NASA and Boeing hailed the mission as a “historic” first that would give the space agency an alternative to SpaceX for carrying cargo and astronauts to the station. Mark Nappi, a Boeing vice president who oversees the Starliner program, said that despite the problems, the “spacecraft is in excellent condition,” and that it “performed like it was supposed to.”
Steve Stich, who runs NASA’s commercial crew program, said last week that the problems were overcome without too much trouble but that the “failures” would have to be studied.
“We have a lot of redundancy so that really didn’t affect the rendezvous operations at all or affect the rest of the flight,” he said after the docking. “I know after the flight, we’ll go study the failures there and see what happened.”
That investigation is made more difficult by the fact that engineers on the ground won’t be able to examine the two main thrusters that cut out since they are housed in the spacecraft’s service module, which was jettisoned during the return.
Still, NASA and Boeing celebrated the flight as a success. During a post-flight briefing Wednesday evening, Stich said the “test flight was extremely successful. We met all the mission objectives.” He added that “the systems performed great on the vehicle and, you know, once we work through all the data, we’ll be ready to fly the crew on the vehicle.”
While there were several issues along the way, he said there were no “showstoppers.” Despite the problems with the thrusters, he said, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t proceed toward a crewed flight test next.”
Nappi added that “we are extremely pleased with the result of this mission.”
Boeing and NASA have said they would like to be able to fly a mission with astronauts by the end of the year, but they would first need to make sure they understand all of the issues that cropped up as well as study the data they have from the capsule now that it is back on the ground.
The program is already delayed by years after a series of previous problems. Boeing first attempted the uncrewed test flight in December 2019. But it had to cut the test short after a major software problem and a communications failure caused the spacecraft to burn too much fuel and not enter an orbit that would carry it to the space station. It took 20 months before the company tried again, but that flight failed even to get off the ground last August when engineers discovered that 13 valves in the service module were stuck in the closed position.