Live video: Boeing Starliner lands on Earth

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returned to Earth on Wednesday after a largely successful uncrewed test flight that included four and a half days docked with the International Space Station.

Crossing the skies above the Pacific Ocean, then crossing the Mexican peninsula of Baja California, it parachuted to land at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The conclusion of this test flight comes after a few years of setbacks and sets the stage for the next Starliner mission, which is to have astronauts on board.

Starliner, which Boeing developed for NASA, provides the space agency with a second transportation system to take astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, has been ferrying astronauts to the space station aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft for a few years.

On Tuesday, space station astronauts closed the hatch of the Starliner capsule after packing it with 600 pounds of cargo to be sent back to Earth.

The spacecraft undocked from the orbiting outpost at 2:36 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday. Less than 20 minutes later, it was over 300 feet from the station and preparing for its return trip to ground when the side of the Earth facing the sun appeared.

“It was a great stay by Starliner. We’re a little sad to see her go,” said Bob Hines, a NASA astronaut currently aboard the space station, after confirming the departure was successful.

After departure, Starliner aligned its course with the selected landing site in New Mexico. At 6:05 p.m., it fired its thrusters for 58 seconds to knock it out of orbit.

He then discarded his service module, the part below the cone-shaped capsule that contains most of the spacecraft’s propulsion and power systems. The service module re-entered the atmosphere separately and burned.

The Starliner capsule sliced ​​through the atmosphere; the air compression against the blunt bottom burned the heat shield at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

At an altitude of about 30,000 feet, two small parachutes called drugs deployed. The three main parachutes deployed about a minute later. A few minutes later, he hit the ground, cushioned by airbags.

Although Russian and Chinese astronaut transports have long parachuted to earth instead of splashing down in the ocean, Starliner is the first US capsule to use this approach. Avoiding salt water should help simplify refurbishment of the capsule, which is designed to be used up to 10 times.

The mission, which launched on Thursday, avoided the jaw-dropping issues that occurred on a previous test flight in December 2019. Software faults during that flight aborted the mission without Starliner docking with the station. spatial.

Due to incomplete testing, NASA asked Boeing to undertake a second uncrewed test flight. Boeing was ready to launch it in August 2021 until stuck valves on the spacecraft scuttled the countdown. Boeing then had to spend months investigating and repairing the valves.

This time, Starliner mostly performed as expected and achieved its goals. There were a few issues, like recalcitrant thrusters and a slow cooling system. But these seem to be the kind a test flight is designed to find out and not major surprises.

Boeing and NASA can start planning now for the next mission, which is to embark NASA astronauts.

NASA will wait until the summer to announce who will be on this flight and whether it will carry two or three astronauts. Boeing and the agency have suggested the flight could take place before the end of the year.

The contracts with Boeing and SpaceX were issued in 2014, three years after NASA retired the space shuttles. The agency had to rely on Russia to transport astronauts for nearly a decade.

A second transport option provides redundancy for NASA in case either spacecraft suffers an accident, and it prevents further reliance on Russia, which has become politically complicated since invading the planet. Ukraine earlier this year.

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