Boeing’s Starliner lands in the desert — and brings NASA one step closer to a key strategic goal

Would you have been to Baja, Sonora, or New Mexico late Wednesday afternoon local time, you may have seen a streak across the sky from the southwest. It was an unmanned test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, returning to Earth after a successful visit to the International Space Station.

This flight has been a long time coming. It brings NASA a step closer to a goal it has been pursuing for a number of years: to rely on multiple private space companies to transport astronauts and supplies between the ground and the ISS. But Starliner’s journey has been turbulent. While the ascent was a success for NASA, it was still well behind schedule.

This mission, evocatively named Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), took off from Cape Canaveral on May 19 on an Atlas V rocket and arrived at the ISS on May 21. The capsule received a warm welcome from the astronauts currently on board the station: three Russians, three Americans and Italian ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

Over a decade ago, when the venerable space shuttles were retired, NASA found itself with no means of transportation to the ISS. To remedy this, NASA bought its astronaut seats aboard Russian Soyuz flights – a time that seems so picturesque today. Even when the agency found its hands empty, it looked to aerospace companies to fill the gap.

In 2014, NASA selected two companies – SpaceX and Boeing – to build different “space taxis” at the same time. SpaceX’s entry would become its Crew Dragon capsule, while Boeing’s entry would become the Starliner. At the time, NASA said they wanted the capsules to be carrying astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017.

It was 1:36 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, May 26, 2022 when this Starliner lifted off from the ISS – still unmanned. It began firing its engines to put some distance between itself and the station.

As early as the 2010s, NASA wanted multiple companies for the transport as it would give the agency multiple options. In the event that one launch vehicle goes awry, as so often happens with spacecraft, NASA can always count on a second without too much disruption.

But there is a deeper motive, cloaked in market rhetoric. NASA’s 2018 Strategic Plan states that it strives to “maintain a constant human presence in low Earth orbit, made possible by a commercial market.” NASA believes that achieving this goal will require the efforts of multiple companies. His choices are already expanding into private spaceflight: SpaceX flew private astronauts to the ISS in April, and Boeing has left the possibility open.

NASA officials have expressed similar intentions in seeking vendors for their moon-bound Artemis program. “As we go to the moon, we want to be one customer of many customers in a robust Earth-Moon market,” then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in November 2018. “We want multiple vendors that compete on cost and innovation .”

At 5:05 CDT, the Starliner fired its engines, forcing it out of orbit and beginning the long dive to the surface. When it entered the atmosphere, it was traveling at 14 times the speed of sound, according to NASA’s live stream of the landing.

Deadline delays are hardly unexpected in the aerospace world, and neither SpaceX nor Boeing met that original 2017 deadline. For the SpaceX portion, Crew Dragon made its first manned flight in November 2020, following an explosion in May 2019 during a pad test, bringing three American and one Japanese astronauts to the ISS.

Starliner’s journey into orbit was no less tumultuous. This flight in May 2022 should perhaps have taken place in December 2019. Then as now, Boeing and NASA tried to launch the Starliner without a crew. But a software bug caused the engines to misfire and sent Starliner into the wrong orbit. It was brought down without ever reaching the ISS.

The company tried again in July 2021. But when the capsule was on the launch pad just hours before scheduled launch, Boeing aborted it, blaming faulty propellant valves.

It took Boeing almost a year to resolve the issues. But this latest launch was successful, as was the capsule’s re-entry.

After shooting through the upper layers of the atmosphere, Starliner deployed two initial drogue parachutes. They throttle enough speed for the vehicle to deploy its three main parachutes. These slowed the shooting spacecraft to the speed of a gently descending elevator. The spacecraft then threw away the heat shield at its base, revealing huge airbags for a soft landing.

At 5:49 am CDT, the vehicle touched down at White Sands in the New Mexico desert, adjacent to an unused runway where the Space Shuttle was parked Columbia used once. Because the capsule landed at a planned location near an inhabited area on land, NASA and Boeing technicians were able to reach the site in minutes.

Now that they know the system can work, Starliner stewards and NASA officials look forward to an even bigger milestone: the capsule’s first manned test. That could happen this year. Boeing’s Starliner lands in the desert — and brings NASA one step closer to a key strategic goal

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