Starliner, a Boeing space capsule, landed on Wednesday, May 25, a successful test mission for a company looking 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 White Sands at 0:49 French time. “Nice Landing on White Sands Tonight”said a NASA video broadcast commentator.
Its descent was slowed by the entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes and contact with the ground was dampened by large airbags. A safe landing allows the American aviation giant, after its failure in 2019, to finally succeed in the mission from start to finish. At the same time, it will regain its image a bit after it was overtaken by SpaceX, whose capsule has already been used as a NASA taxi since 2020. Boeing wants to hire its services to transport its astronauts to the ISS in the future.
The Starliner hatch was closed by astronauts aboard the ISS on Tuesday. It will bring with it 270 kilos of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks, which will fill up on Earth and later return to orbit. Starliner took off from Florida on Thursday, May 19, and joined the ISS the next day. In recent days, many tests have been performed to verify the proper functioning of the vehicle when connected to a flying laboratory. However, a successful Friday docking was a real relief for Boeing after the failed first attempt in 2019. Starliner had to return earlier than expected before he arrived at the station.
After this first unsuccessful mission and a long period of adjustment, the test flight was to be repeated in August 2021. But when the rocket was already on the launch pad, the capsule valves were blocked due to a humidity problem. The ship had to return to the factory for repairs for ten months.
The flight to the ISS went well this time, despite a few hiccups, especially the problem found in the propulsion system: two of the twelve nozzles with which the capsules were placed on the correct trajectory after launch did not work.
However, NASA and Boeing officials reassured the importance of the incident. The capsule also docked late, due to a technical problem with the device that allowed it to connect to the station.
Another test with a human crew
After this mission, a second demonstration flight will have to be conducted, this time with astronauts on board, for the spacecraft to receive NASA certification. Boeing hopes to make it by the end of the year and then launch regular ISS missions. However, the exact timing will depend on Starliner’s performance analysis in recent days. The US Space Agency has signed fixed price agreements with both SpaceX and Boeing.
By using two companies, it wants to diversify its options so that it never again risks finding itself without American vehicles, as after the shutdown of the shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA was indeed limited to paying for seats on Russian Soyuz Rockets.
Elona Muska, a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has already transported eighteen astronauts with its own Dragon capsules and four private passengers to the ISS during a space tourism mission.