Boeing’s Starliner capsule will return home

Boeing’s Starliner capsule will return home

As it nears the thick inner shell of Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will ignite its thrusters in a blazing fire of heat and speed before deploying parachutes to slow its descent. It is expected to land in a sand puff in a remote area of ​​the New Mexico desert called White Sands, which has long been the site of aerospace and weapons testing.

If all goes well with the landing, the Starliner, which is outfitted with only a spacesuit-clad dummy for this test mission, could carry its first load of NASA astronauts to the ISS by the end of 2022.

This test mission, however, has already encountered some minor setbacks, including issues with four of the spacecraft’s onboard thrusters, which steer and maneuver the vehicle as it flies through space. The thruster hitch did not impact the overall mission because the Starliner is equipped with backups, Boeing and NASA officials told reporters. But it raises questions about the root cause of the issue and whether it could point to deeper issues on a spacecraft that has struggled with numerous technical blockages throughout its development.

A series of data and hardware issues also delayed Starliner’s ability to dock with the ISS on Friday.

“I don’t know about you, but the last few hours have been excruciating,” NASA associate administrator Kathryn Lueders said at a Friday night press conference. “Seeing this beautiful spacecraft sitting just out of range of the ISS was quite challenging. But as we’ve been talking about for the past few days, it’s a really critical display.”

Ultimately, the spacecraft was able to lock onto its port after about an hour of delay.

Notably, the first attempt to send the Starliner on an orbital test in late 2019 had to be aborted – returning the vehicle directly to earth rather than an ISS docking – after software glitches caused the vehicle to deviate from its trajectory. It took nearly two years of troubleshooting before the Starliner was ready to return to the launch pad. Then, a problem with sticking valves further delayed the capsule’s return to flight.

Despite its setbacks, NASA has backed Boeing, which is one of two companies – the other being SpaceX – that the space agency tapped to build an astronaut-worthy spacecraft after the shuttle program was pulled out. space in 2011. While even the space agency initially expected Boeing, NASA’s decades-old partner, to outpace SpaceX on the launch pad, Boeing is now two years behind its rival.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft entered service in 2020 and has so far flown five missions for NASA.

Once this Starliner test mission is complete, NASA and Boeing will work through the data collected by the spacecraft and try to come to an agreement that it is ready to fly astronauts.

“We intended to learn a lot,” Boeing Starliner program manager Mark Nappi told reporters on Friday. “We will take this information and apply it in the development of our spacecraft. We are very pleased with what we learned about how the team responded.”

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 encounters and emits and needs to be grounded , it will not affect NASA’s ability to get the crew to the ISS.

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