Boeing Starliner space capsule passes key test

Starliner, Boeing’s space capsule, landed on Wednesday evening and thus completed successfully mission-critical test mission. The capsule, which has no passengers on board, landed at 4:49 p.m. (0:49 a.m. in Switzerland) in the desert of the US state of New Mexico at the White Sands base. “Nice landing tonight,” said a commentator on the NASA video feed.

Its descent was slowed down by entering the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes, and ground contact was cushioned by large airbags.

A successful mission from start to finish

The effort was immense for both Boeing, which has been trying to make this test flight a success for years, and NASA, which has invested several billion 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 allows the American aviation giant to finally complete a successful mission from start to finish after a failure in 2019. And at the same time to restore its image a little after being overtaken by SpaceX, whose capsule has already served as a NASA taxi since 2020.

Also read: Two years later, Starliner finally attempts a flight to the ISS

The hatch of the Starliner was closed by astronauts aboard the ISS on Tuesday. It will carry 270 kg of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks that will be filled on Earth and later returned to orbit.

Previous failures

Starliner took off from Florida last Thursday and docked with the ISS for the first time the next day. Many tests have been carried out in the last few days to verify the proper functioning of the vehicle after connecting to the flying laboratory.

But above all, the success of docking on Friday was a real relief for Boeing after a first attempt in 2019. Starliner had to turn back earlier than expected before it was able to reach the station. Landing hadn’t been a problem.

To this topic: Boeing is bringing its Starliner space capsule back to the garage

After this first failed mission and a long period of adjustment, the test flight should be repeated in August 2021. But when the rocket was already on the launch pad, the capsule’s valves blocked due to a moisture problem. The ship had to go back to the factory for repairs – for ten months.

A second demonstration flight is expected by the end of the year

This time the flight to the ISS went well, despite some problems, notably a problem found in the propulsion system: two of the 12 engines that put the capsule on the correct trajectory after launch were not working. However, representatives of NASA and Boeing assured the importance of the incident.

The capsule had also docked late due to a technical problem with the device that allowed it to be attached to the station. Issues that remain minor compared to previous pitfalls.

After this mission, a second demonstration flight, this time with astronauts on board, must be conducted for the spacecraft to receive NASA certification. Boeing aims to achieve this by the end of the year and then launch regular missions to the ISS. However, the exact timing will depend on the analysis of Starliner’s performance over the past few days.

The US space agency has fixed-price contracts with both SpaceX and Boeing. By using two companies, it wants to diversify its options so as never again to run the risk of being without American means of transport, as it did after the space shuttles were shut down in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA actually had to pay for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. Elon Musk’s company, which is still a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has already transported 18 astronauts to the ISS with its own Dragon capsule – as well as four private passengers as part of a space tourism mission.

For further reading: NASA is banking on private space stations, a step closer to commercializing space


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