The landing was the final step in a critical test for Boeing and NASA, which required the airline to demonstrate its ability to safely transport the craft to the station and back independently before allowing it to fly the astronauts.
NASA and Boeing said the return flight went smoothly, from pulling out of the space station, then launching their engines to exiting orbit and entering the atmosphere. As it descends back toward Earth, its heat shield withstands temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Just a beautiful landing at White Sands this evening,” Boeing spokeswoman Lauren Seabrook said in a live broadcast of the landing.
She added that the spacecraft landed about three tenths of a mile southeast of the landing site, “which is basically a bull’s-eye,” she said.
However, it is unclear when the first manned flight will occur.
On the way to the station, two of the main thrusters were cut off after sensors registered problems. Backups began without delay, putting the spacecraft on track to the station, but once they got close to the station, two of the smaller engines, which were used to position the spacecraft to dock, also ran into problems. In addition, the spacecraft’s thermal control system, which is used to keep the spacecraft at the proper temperature, also failed.
Despite these challenges, NASA and Boeing hailed the mission as a “historic” first that would give the space agency an alternative to SpaceX to transport cargo and astronauts to the station. Mark Naby, Boeing’s vice president who oversees the Starliner program, said that despite the problems, “the spacecraft is in perfect condition,” and that it “performed as it was supposed to.”
Steve Stitch, who directs NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said last week that the problems were overcome without much trouble, but that “failures” should be considered.
“We have a lot of redundancy, so it didn’t really affect the appointment processes at all or affect the rest of the flight,” he said after docking. “I know that after the trip, we’ll go study the failures there and see what happens.”
This investigation is made more difficult by the fact that engineers on the ground will not be able to inspect the two main thrusters that are interrupted because they are located in the spacecraft’s service module, which was abandoned during the re-entry.
However, NASA and Boeing celebrated the flight as a success. During a post-flight press conference on Wednesday evening, Stich said, “The test flight was very successful. We achieved all mission objectives.” “The systems were performing really well on the car, and you know, once we’ve worked through all the data, we’ll be ready to get the crew on the car,” he added.
While there were many issues along the way, he said there were no “stops”. Despite the problems with the thrusters, he said, “I see no reason why we shouldn’t move forward toward a manned flight test after that.”
“We are very pleased with the outcome of this mission,” Naby added.
Boeing and NASA said they want to do a mission with astronauts by the end of the year, but they will first need to make sure they understand all the problems that have arisen as well as study the data they have from the capsule now that it’s back on Earth.
The program has already been delayed for years after a series of previous problems. Boeing first attempted an uncrewed test flight in December 2019. But it had to cut the test short after a major software issue and a communications failure caused the spacecraft to burn up too much fuel and not go into orbit to the space station. It took 20 months before the company tried again, but that flight failed even to take off last August when engineers discovered 13 valves in the service module were stuck in the closed position.