Boeing’s Starliner capsule passed the main test, despite some hiccups

The capsule, with no passengers on board, landed Wednesday night in the desert in the American state of New Mexico.

The Starliner, Boeing’s space capsule, landed Wednesday night, successfully completing an important test mission for the company, which wants to prove its ability to bring NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The capsule, with no passengers on board, landed in the U.S. state desert of New Mexico, at the White Sands base, at 4:49 p.m. (22:49 GMT). “A nice landing on White Sand tonight”, said a commentator on the NASA video broadcast. Its descent is braked by its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes, and contact with the ground is preceded by large airbags.

Size issues

The stakes are huge for Boeing, which has been trying to make the test flight a success for many years, and for NASA, which has invested several billions of dollars in developing the spacecraft. In the future, it wants to lease its services to take its astronauts to the International Space Station. The safe landing allowed the American aeronautical giant to finally complete a successful mission from start to finish, after a failure in 2019. And at the same time restore its image a little , after being caught by SpaceX, whose capsule has served as a NASA taxi since 2020.

The Starliner hatch was closed Tuesday by astronauts aboard the ISS. He was carrying his 270 kg cargo, including usable oxygen tanks, to be filled to Earth and returned to orbit later.

Repeated traps

The Starliner took off from Florida on Thursday, and landed on the ISS for the first time the next day. In recent days, several tests have been performed to verify the correct operation of the car once connected to the flying laboratory. But the success of Friday’s landing, in particular, represents a real relief for Boeing, after the first test in 2019. The Starliner at the time had to return earlier than expected, before reaching the station. Landing is not a problem.

After this first failed mission and a long period of adjustment, the test flight will have to be tried again in August 2021. But once the rocket is already on the launch pad, the capsule valves are blocked due to on the problem of humidity. The ship had to return to the factory to be repaired – within ten months. This time, it was good to fly to the ISS, despite some hiccups, especially a problem found with the propulsion system: two of the 12 thrusters used in the capsule to put itself on the right trajectory after on take-off does not work. However, NASA and Boeing officials were reassuring about the significance of the incident. The capsule also landed later, due to a technical problem with the device that allowed it to be attached to the station. The problems remain small, compared to previous pitfalls.

Next human test

After this mission, a second demonstration flight, this time with astronauts on board, will have to be made for the spacecraft to get NASA certification. Boeing hopes to achieve this by the end of the year and then begin regular ISS missions. But the exact time will depend on analysis of Starliner’s performance in recent days. The U.S. space agency has signed fixed-price contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.

By using both companies, it wants to diversify its options, so as not to risk finding itself without American means of transportation, such as after the shutdown of shuttles in space in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA was actually downsized to pay for Russian seats. Soyuz rockets. Elon Musk’s company, newer in the aerospace industry than Boeing, has already brought 18 astronauts to the ISS with its own capsule, Dragon – as well as four private passengers, during a mission in space tourism.

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