Boeing capsule Starliner passes key test

Starliner, Boeing’s space capsule, landed on the evening of May 25, the successful conclusion of a crucial test mission for the company, which wants to prove its ability to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Billions of dollars invested by NASA

The capsule, which has no passengers on board, landed in the desert of the US state of New Mexico at the White Sands base at 1 p.m. 16:49 (22:49 GMT). “A nice landing at White Sand tonight“, said a commentator on the NASA video broadcast. Its descent had been slowed by its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes, and contact with the Earth was dampened by large airbags.

The effort was enormous both for Boeing, which has been trying to make this test flight a success for years, and for NASA, which has invested billions of dollars in the development of the spacecraft. In the future, it wants to hire its services to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station. The safe landing enables the American aviation giant to finally complete a successful mission from start to finish, following a failure in 2019. And at the same time restore its image a bit, after being overtaken by SpaceX, whose capsule has already served as a NASA taxi since 2020.

Relief for Boeing

Starliner’s hatch had been closed on May 24 by astronauts aboard the ISS. She carries 270 kg of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks, which will be filled on Earth and returned to orbit later. Starliner took off from Florida last Thursday and docked with the ISS for the first time the next day. In recent days, many tests have been performed to verify the proper functioning of the vehicle once it is connected to the flying laboratory.

But especially Friday’s success with docking had represented a real relief for Boeing, after a first attempt in 2019. At that time, Starliner had to return earlier than expected before it managed to reach the station. The landing had not been a problem. After this first failed mission and a long period of adjustments, the test flight was to be retried in August 2021. However, when the rocket was already on the launch pad, the capsule valves were blocked due to a moisture problem. The ship had to return to the factory for repair – for ten months.

Minor problems

This time, the flight to the ISS went well, despite a few hiccups, especially a problem that was discovered in the propulsion system: two of the 12 thrusters that the capsule used to place itself on the right trajectory after take-off did not work. However, NASA and Boeing officials were reassuring about the importance of the incident. The capsule was also mounted too late due to a technical problem with the device that made it possible to attach it to the station. Problems that remain minor compared to previous pitfalls.

After this mission, another demonstration flight, this time with astronauts on board, must be performed in order for the spacecraft to obtain NASA certification. Boeing hopes to achieve this before the end of the year and then embark on regular missions to the ISS. But the exact timing will depend on the analysis of Starliner’s performance in recent days.

The US space agency has signed fixed-price contracts with both SpaceX and Boeing. By using two companies, it wants to diversify its options to never again risk being without US transportation, as after the closure of the space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA was actually reduced to paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. Elon Musk’s company, which is nevertheless a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has already transported 18 astronauts to the ISS with its own capsule, Dragon – as well as four private passengers, during a space tourism mission.

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