Boeing’s Starliner astronaut capsule returned from the International Space Station and landed in New Mexico on Wednesday, capping a high-risk test flight as NASA’s next vehicle to take humans into orbit.
Less than a week after it was launched from the US Space Force’s Cape Canaveral base in Florida, the CST-100 Starliner capsule plunged into Earth’s atmosphere Wednesday evening before making a parachute-assisted landing over the desert of White Sands Space Harbor, New Mexico. It landed on time at 6:49 PM EST (22:49 GMT).
The nearly five-hour return flight from the space station, an orbital location about 250 miles above Earth, checks the final stage of a repeat test flight that Boeing first attempted in 2019 but failed to complete after experiencing a software fiasco.
Struggling with frequent delays and costly engineering setbacks, Starliner’s latest experimental mission is a big step closer to providing NASA with a reliable second path to transport astronauts to and from the space station.
The Starliner soared into orbit last Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and achieved its main goal – a rendezvous with the International Space Station, although four of its multiple thrusters failed along the way.
Boeing engineers also had to devise a workaround for the thermal control defect during the capsule’s final approach to the space station.
Since the resumption of manned flights into orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the end of the space shuttle program, the US space agency has had to rely only on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from billionaire SpaceX’s company, Elon Musk.
Previously, the only other option for access to the orbital laboratory was to board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently a less attractive alternative in light of rising US-Russian tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Much is at stake for Boeing, as the Chicago-based company seeks to emerge from successive crises in its aircraft and space defense business unit. The Starliner program alone has cost the company nearly $600 million (about Rs 4,655 crore) over the past two and a half years.
Starliner’s ill-fated first orbital test flight in late 2019 nearly ended in the loss of the craft after a software glitch effectively frustrated the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.
Subsequent problems with the Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led to Boeing making a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.
Starliner remained out of business for another nine months while the two companies competed over why the fuel valves had stopped working and which company was responsible for fixing them.
The preliminary test mission that concluded on Wednesday could pave the way for Starliner to fly its first crew of astronauts to the space station sometime next year, pending redesign of the Starliner’s propulsion system valves and resolution of propulsion issues that emerged midway through. -a task.
The orbital site currently houses a crew of three American NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency, and three Russian cosmonauts. While the Starliner was parked at the station, some astronauts climbed onto the capsule to analyze the conditions of its cabin.
© Thomson Reuters 2022