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Boeing’s Starliner capsule makes safe return from test mission


By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft made a safe return home from its five-day stay at the International Space Station on Wednesday, concluding a long-awaited test mission that could pave the way for the Starliner to launch astronauts for the first time later this year.

After detaching from its port at the ISS Wednesday afternoon, the spacecraft spent about four hours gradually lowering its altitude. As it approached Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft lit its thrusters in a fiery blaze of heat and speed before deploying parachutes to slow its descent. It landed in a puff of sand at 6:49 pm ET in a remote area of the New Mexican desert, called White Sands, which has long been the site of aerospace and weapons tests.

The capsule touched down three-tenths of a mile away from the targeted landing site, which the webcast hosts described as “”basically a bullseye.”

The safe return of the capsule marks a major milestone for Boeing, which has spent years trying to right the program after a string of mishaps and delays that tarnished the once-sterling reputation of the company’s space business.

This mission was crewed only by a spacesuit-clad mannequin for this test mission, but NASA and Boeing could deem the Starliner ready to fly its first load of NASA astronauts to the ISS by the end of 2022.

Officials plan to conduct an extensive review of the data collected on this trip, which did encounter a few minor setbacks. They included issues with four of the spacecraft’s on-board thrusters, which orient and maneuver the vehicle as it flies through space. The thruster hitch did not impact the overall mission, as the Starliner is equipped with backups, Boeing and NASA officials told reporters. But it does raise questions about the root cause of the problem and whether it could point to deeper issues on a spacecraft that has grappled with numerous technical hangups throughout its development.

Notably, the first attempt to send the Starliner on an orbital test run in late 2019 had to be cut short — taking the vehicle directly back to land rather than to an ISS docking — after software issues sent the vehicle off course. It took nearly two years of troubleshooting before the Starliner was ready to return to the launch pad. Then, an issue with sticky valves further delayed the capsule’s return to flight.

Despite its setbacks, NASA has stood by Boeing, which is one of two companies — the other being SpaceX — that the space agency tapped to build an astronaut-worthy spacecraft after the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011. While even the space agency initially expected that Boeing, a decades-long partner of NASA’s, would beat SpaceX to the launch pad, Boeing is now two years behind its rival. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft entered operation in 2020 and has flown five missions for NASA so far.

“We intended to learn a lot,” Boeing’s Starliner program manager Mark Nappi told reporters Friday. “We’re going to take that information and apply it in the development of our spacecraft. We are very satisfied by what we’ve learned how the team has reacted to it.”

NASA’s hope is that Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will give its human spaceflight program redundancy, meaning that if one spacecraft or the other enounters and issue and has to be grounded, it won’t affect NASA’s ability to get crew to the ISS.

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