Boeing’s new passenger ship, the CST-100 Starliner, landed safely in the New Mexico desert this morning, ending a difficult first space flight. Fortunately, no one was on board for the first flight, and the spacecraft was supposed to stay in orbit for a week and then dock with the International Space Station. But problems during the launch prevented Starliner from reaching the space station and forced the spacecraft back to Earth just two days later.
Despite the troubles on the road, Starliner’s landing was perfect. The capsule deorbited around 7:23 a.m. EST on Sunday and crashed into the Earth’s atmosphere to reach the ground below. After surviving at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the vehicle then released three main parachutes to land it at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Starliner also managed to inflate the airbags to cushion its landing when it landed at the site just before 8 a.m. EST.
Proving this landing capability is significant for Starliner’s short but critical journey, as it shows that the spacecraft can safely return from space. This is the key moment when Starliner one day carries people. Boeing has developed Starliner as part of NASA’s commercial crew program, which aims to use privately manufactured vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Starliner’s first mission was to complete all of its missions in space before the live astronauts could travel to the space station.
But due to a malfunction during the launch, Starliner failed to demonstrate another key aspect of its mission: docking with the International Space Station. The capsule is designed to automatically approach the space station and connect itself to the docking port. However, since the feature has not yet been performed, it is unclear whether Boeing will have to perform another Starliner test mission without a crew to prove it can dock with the International Space Station.
Despite the launch failure, the spacecraft’s successful landing is still a good sign that Boeing can bring Starliner back after the tragedy, as this could be a matter of future life and death. Preliminary studies have determined that incorrect clocks are the cause of the loss of capsule unexpected performance. After liftoff, Starliner should perform enough engine combustion to get it into a designated orbit to rendezvous with the space station. However, the internal clock of the carrier is different from the actual time, thus preventing the carrier from performing ignition operations. Starliner is said to have taken the wrong time from its Atlas V rocket, which flew into space, which prevented the capsule from reaching its desired orbit.
Boeing believes the best remaining course of action is to take Starliner home and make all the landings possible. Naturally, the main parachute in the return capsule also attracted attention, as previous tests of Starliner’s parachute did not go as planned. Back in November, Boeing tested a key system on the capsule before landing it in the White Sands Desert. During the test, only two of the three main parachutes were deployed that opened normally, and one of them did not function properly because it was not properly installed. While the capsule could still land safely in this case, there are fears that a similar failure could happen again. Boeing assured the public that the problem had been resolved, and sure enough, all three parachutes were opened as expected this morning.
No one was on the flight, but one of the seats had a dummy named Rosie, equipped with sensors to collect data on the flight.
Thankfully, Starliner is back, and Boeing can renovate the capsule and re-use it for future missions, having previously said it could reuse it up to 10 times per Starliner if needed.