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 braked by its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes, and contact with the ground was cushioned by large airbags. The safe landing allows the American aeronautical giant to finally conclude 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. Boeing wishes in the future to hire its services to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.
Starliner’s hatch was closed Tuesday by astronauts aboard the ISS. She brings with her 270 kg of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks, which will be filled on Earth and returned to orbit later. Starliner took off from Florida on Thursday, May 19, and docked with the ISS for the first time the next day. In recent days, many tests have been carried out to verify the proper functioning of the vehicle, once connected to the flying laboratory. But the successful docking on Friday was a real relief for Boeing, after a first attempt in 2019. Starliner had to turn back earlier than expected before reaching the station.
After this first failed mission and a long period of adjustments, the test flight was to be retried in August 2021. But when the rocket was already on the launch pad, the capsule’s valves were blocked at due to a humidity problem. The ship had had to return to the factory for repairs, for ten months.
This time, the flight to the ISS went well, despite a few hiccups, in particular 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 not worked.
However, NASA and Boeing officials were reassuring about the importance of the incident. The capsule had also docked late, due to a technical problem with the device allowing it to attach to the station.
A next 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 certification. Boeing hopes to be able to achieve this by the end of the year, 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 with both SpaceX and Boeing.
By using two companies, it wants to diversify its options, so as to never again risk finding itself without American means of transport, as after the shutdown of the space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA was indeed reduced to pay for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets.
Elon Musk’s company, yet 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.