You had been to Baja, Sonora, or in New Mexico late Wednesday afternoon local time, you may have seen a trail in the sky from the southwest. It was an unmanned test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, which returned to Earth after a successful visit to the International Space Station.
This flight has come a long time ago. It takes NASA one step closer to a goal it has had for a few years: relying on multiple private space companies to transport astronauts and supplies between earth and the ISS. But Starliner’s journey has been turbulent. For NASA, even though the ascent was a success, it was still very late.
This mission, evocatively called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), was launched on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on May 19 and arrived at the ISS on May 21. The capsule received a warm welcome from the astronauts currently aboard the station: three Russians, three Americans and the Italian ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
Over a decade ago, when the venerable Space Shuttles retired, NASA found itself without a means of transportation to the ISS. To remedy this, NASA bought the seats of its astronauts aboard Russian Soyuz flights, a period that looks so picturesque today. Though the agency found empty hands, however, they were looking for aerospace companies to fill the void.
In 2014, NASA chose two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to build several “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 it wanted the capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017.
It was 1:36 pm CDT on Wednesday May 26, 2022, when this still unmanned Starliner departed from the ISS. He began firing his thrusters to put some initial distance between himself and the station.
As early as the 2010s, NASA wanted more transportation companies, as this would have given the agency more options. In the event that a launch vehicle goes wrong, as is often the case with spacecraft, NASA can still rely on a second without too many interruptions.
But there is a deeper reason, wrapped in the rhetoric of the market. NASA’s 2018 Strategic Plan says it strives to “maintain a constant human presence in the low Earth orbit permitted by a commercial market.” NASA believes that achieving this goal means using multiple companies. His choices are already expanding to private spaceflight: SpaceX brought private astronauts to the ISS in April, and Boeing left the possibility open.
NASA officials have stated similar intentions in seeking suppliers for its Artemis program to the moon. “When we go to the moon, we want to be a customer of many customers in a solid market between the Earth and the moon,” said then NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in November 2018. “We want more suppliers who compete on cost and innovation.” .
At 5:05 CDT, the Starliner fired its thrusters, forcing it out of Earth’s orbit, starting the long plunge to Earth’s surface. When it entered the atmosphere, it was traveling at 14 times the speed of sound, according to NASA’s livestream of the landing.
Scheduling delays are by no means unexpected in the aerospace world, and neither SpaceX nor Boeing met the initial 2017 deadline. From SpaceX, after an explosion in May 2019 during a pad test, Crew Dragon completed its first flight with crew in November 2020, delivering three American and one Japanese astronauts to the ISS.
Starliner’s journey into orbit was no less tumultuous. This May 2022 flight perhaps should have taken place in December 2019. Then, as now, Boeing and NASA tried to launch the unmanned Starliner. But a software glitch caused the thrusters to fail, sending Starliner into the wrong orbit. It was shot down without ever reaching the ISS.
The company retried in July 2021. But when the capsule was on the launch pad, just hours before scheduled takeoff, Boeing canceled it, blaming the malfunctioning of the propellant valves.
It took Boeing nearly a year to fix the problems. But this most recent launch was successful, as was the return of the capsule.
After crossing the upper layers of the atmosphere, Starliner opened two initial drogue parachutes. They reduced enough speed to allow the craft to deploy its three main parachutes. Those slowed the spacecraft to the speed of a gently descending elevator. The spacecraft then threw off the heat shield at its base, unveiling huge airbags for a smooth landing.
At 5:49 am CDT, the aircraft landed at White Sands in the New Mexico desert near an unused runway that the Space Shuttle Colombia once used. Because the capsule landed in a planned location, close to an inhabited place, on the ground, 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 are looking forward to an even greater milestone: the first manned test of the capsule. It could happen as early as this year.