NASA’s astronauts could soon officially have a new ride to the International Space Station as the Boeing CST-100 Starliner finally completed its long-delayed reflight of its uncrewed test mission arriving back on Earth on Wednesday.
The capsule that launched last week from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station spent more than four days docked to the ISS as part of the Orbital Flight Test-2, a redo of the first uncrewed test flight from 2019 that failed to meet objectives.
It undocked at 2:36 p.m. EDT as the station was orbiting 257 miles above the Earth, and touched down in the New Mexico desert just over four hours later, landing at 6:49 p.m. less than a half mile from the planned target near the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range.
“It was pretty surreal as Starliner almost seemed to have materialized in thin air directly above us,” said Dan Huot with NASA communications who was on site in New Mexico.
It made its deorbit burn at 6:05 p.m., re-entering Earth’s atmosphere with its heat shields withstanding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The capsule’s trajectory brought it over the Pacific cutting across the Baja California peninsula over parts of Mexico before its final descent over the Southwest U.S. with drogue parachutes deploying like clockwork before its three main parachutes unfurled to bring the capsule in for a soft landing.
Starliner is looking to join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as one of two capsules under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program contracted to ferry astronauts up and down from the space station.
Unlike the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which lands in the water in one of several locations off either the Gulf or Atlantic coast of Florida, Starliner’s returns feature a terrestrial touchdown targeting locations in the Western U.S.
“We inflate what we call landing airbags which cushion the final impact on ground,” said former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, now director of Starliner mission operations for Boeing. “It’s a great opportunity. We get to the crew very quickly. We can also extract science payloads and get it back to (scientists) before too long. We’re a land lander.”
One of the possible astronauts tabbed for the upcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT) that could come before the end of the year is NASA’s Mike Fincke, who has flown to the ISS previously and landed back on Earth in Russian Soyuz capsules. He joked that he would enjoy the “cushion.”
“We didn’t have airbags on the Soyuz,” Fincke said.
OFT-2 is a redo of the original uncrewed flight test that launched and landed successfully in December 2019, but missed its rendezvous with the ISS because of software and communication issues. A post-flight review of that mission that NASA referred to as a “high visibility close call” led to 80 changes to the program. After nearly 18 months of fixes, Boeing was back last August for a retry, but that attempt was foiled when moisture caused corrosion on several valves, and Starliner was delayed another nine months.
The launch last Thursday, though, went off with just a few issues that Boeing was able to work through on its way to a successful docking Friday night the with ISS while also testing out its navigation and communication requirements with the station. It delivered more than 500 pounds of cargo to the station that Crew-4 members unloaded, and has now returned with 600 pounds from the station.
The mission completion puts Boeing back on track to play catchup to SpaceX, which was able to first send humans to the station back in May 2020, and has since launched its Crew Dragon on four operational crew rotation missions. As Starliner left the station, the Crew Dragon Freedom that brought the Crew-4 astronauts to the station last month could be seen still attached.
Both companies were contracted originally for six crew missions each after two test flights.
NASA said official crew announcements would come later this summer for CFT. Starliner has room for four astronauts, but could fly it with only two.
A successful CFT would then pave the way for Starliner-1 in 2023, the first operational flight. NASA officials said they plan to switch out Boeing and SpaceX so each company has only one crew rotation flight a year. The space station is currently funded through 2024, but NASA has proposed an extension for the ISS to continue flying through 2030.
“We can’t keep all of our eggs in one basket,” Fincke said. “We have another way to go up besides the SpaceX Crew Dragon and it’s dissimilar, so we’re not using the same rocket or the same capsule. So if there’s something wrong with one, we can still have a chance to continue our continuous human presence aboard the International Space Station.”
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