Starliner, Boeing’s space capsule, landed on Wednesday, 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). 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 00:49 French time. “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 wide parachutes, and contact with the ground was cushioned by large airbags. The smooth landing allows the American aerospace giant to finally conclude a successful end-to-end mission, after a failure in 2019. And, at the same time, to restore its image a little, after being dubbed by SpaceX, whose capsule has already been serving as a taxi for NASA since 2020. Boeing wants to hire its services in the future to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.
The Starliner hatch had been closed on Tuesday by astronauts aboard the ISS. It brings with it 270 kg of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks, which will be filled on Earth and returned to orbit later. Starliner had taken off from Florida on Thursday, May 19, and had docked for the first time to the ISS the next day. In recent days, many tests have been carried out to verify the correct operation of the vehicle, once connected to the flying laboratory. But the success of the tie-down, on Friday, had represented a real relief for Boeing, after a first attempt in 2019. Starliner had at the time had to turn back earlier than planned, before managing to reach the station.
After this first failed mission and a long period of adjustments, the test flight was to be rescheduled in August 2021. But while the rocket was already on the launch pad, valves in the capsule had become blocked due to a moisture problem. The ship had to return to the factory for repairs, for ten months.
This time, the flight to the ISS went well, despite some snags, including a problem detected in the propulsion system: two of the 12 thrusters used by the capsule to place itself on the correct trajectory after takeoff did not work.
NASA and Boeing officials, however, had been reassuring about the significance of the incident. The capsule had also docked late, due to a technical problem on the device allowing it to hang on the station.
An upcoming manned test
After this mission, a second demonstration flight, this time with astronauts on board, will have to be carried out for the spacecraft to obtain NASA approval. Boeing hopes to be able to carry it out by the end of the year, and then start 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, both with SpaceX and Boeing.
By resorting to two companies, she wants to diversify her options, so as never to risk being left without an American means of transport again, as after the shutdown of space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA was indeed reduced to paying for places in Russian Soyuz rockets.
Elon Musk’s company, although 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.