Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returned home safely on Wednesday following a five-day stay at the International Space Station, capping off a long-awaited test mission that might pave the way for the Starliner to fly people for the first time later this year.
The safe return to Earth brings a close to the successful end-to-end uncrewed orbital flight test that was flown to demonstrate the quality and performance of the transportation system prior to crewed flights.
“We have had an excellent flight test of a complex system that we expected to learn from along the way and we have,” Boeing Commercial Crew Program vice president and program manager Mark Nappi said in a company announcement.
“With the completion of OFT-2, we will incorporate lessons learned and continue working to prepare for the crewed flight test and NASA certification,” Nappi added.
Together with NASA, Boeing safely landed the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico completing the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) to the International Space Station to help prove the system is ready to fly astronauts.
About four hours after departing the space station, Starliner touched down onto its airbags at 4:49 p.m. MDT, wrapping up the six-day flight, which tested the end-to-end capabilities of the crew-capable spacecraft. The landing followed a deorbit burn at 4:05 p.m., separation of the spacecraft’s service module, and successful deployment of its three main parachutes and six airbags.
“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and our industry partner, Boeing, today took a major and successful step on the journey to enabling more human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station on American spacecraft from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
“The OFT-2 mission represents the power of collaboration, which allows us to innovate for the benefit of humanity and inspire the world through discovery. This golden era of spaceflight wouldn’t be possible without the thousands of individuals who persevered and poured their passion into this great achievement.”
The flight test completed on Wednesday began May 19 with a launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Among the capabilities the Starliner has demonstrated include the end-to-end performance of the Atlas V rocket and Starliner spacecraft through launch, ascent, on-orbit, re-entry, and landing.
Starliner’s autonomous software and the on-orbit operation of its avionics system, docking system, communications/telemetry systems, environmental control systems, solar arrays, electrical power systems, and propulsion systems were also performed.
The Starliner was also able to successfully hold docking attitude, receive commands from the space station crew, and command holds and retreats during the final station approach including conducting cattery charging, hatch open and close, establishing joint ventilation with the station, file transfer, and cargo transfer.
Following liftoff, Starliner successfully entered Earth’s orbit, performed a series of demonstrations of its capabilities, and docked with the orbital outpost 26 hours after launch. The Expedition 67 crew aboard the International Space Station opened hatches and entered the capsule for the first time, inspecting the spacecraft and verifying integration with power and communications station systems for longer stays in the future. The station crew also unloaded 500 pounds of cargo delivered by Starliner and sent 600 pounds of cargo back to Earth.
When Starliner completes its next flight, Boeing will have fulfilled NASA’s goal of having two commercial vehicles to transport astronauts safely, reliably, and sustainably to the station from American soil.
As it delivered cargo to the ISS, Starliner also carried a “passenger” during the flight test – a lifelike test device named Rosie.
During OFT-1, Rosie was outfitted with 15 sensors to collect data on what astronauts will experience during flights on Starliner. For OFT-2, spacecraft data capture ports previously connected to Rosie’s 15 sensors were used to collect data from sensors placed along the seat pallet, which is the infrastructure that holds all the crew seats in place.
Among the cargo returned were three Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System reusable tanks that provide breathable air to station crew members. The tanks will be refurbished on Earth and sent back to the station on a future flight.
Boeing retrieved the spacecraft from the desert and will transport it back to the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for processing.