After an affected two-day first mission, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has come back to Earth. At 5:48 am MT, on December 22, the uncrewed orbital space capsule made a soft, measured landing at the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico after a brief mission due to an onboard malfunction.
Intended to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil, the Starliner’s First Orbital Mission was planned to field test the spacecraft’s automated systems ahead of its first manned mission. Although, this changed after its early morning launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on December 20, 2019, when a timer error occurred after the spacecraft’s parting from the Centaur upper stage.
According to Boeing, the onboard mission timer by mistake reset itself, causing the flight computer to lose its position in the mission timeline. As a consequence, it thought it was assumed to perform an orbital manoeuvre and it fired its engines, making it go into the wrong orbit while using up excess fuel to allow it to engage with the ISS.
Mission Control was able to rescue the situation by positioning the Starliner in a stable, lower orbit, where they were able to execute systems checks before giving the capsule the instruction to return to Earth today. The craft used its parachutes after re-entry and a series of airbags let it land gently – making it the first US space capsule to accomplish a landing on American soil instead of the ocean.
NASA andBoeing have both said that, in spite of the shortened mission time, most of the aims have been met. The Starliner showed that its key systems could perform, including the soft-landing system that permits the craft to return intact for reuse and refurbishment. Furthermore, an anthropomorphic test device called “Rosie” was in the commander’s seat, where it gathered data to make sure that the capsule is safe for upcoming astronauts.
The Starliner’s crew module is planned for a return to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for data recovery, analysis, and refurbishment. The following flight will use a different Starliner that will ferry NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson on the Crewed Flight Test. Though, there is no confirmation yet as to whether the failure on this flight will result in a postponement.
“The Starliner team’s swift recovery and ability to attain many mission objectives – including safe deorbit, re-entry and landing – is a testimony to the people of Boeing who have devoted years of their lives working toward the success of commercial human spaceflight,” says John Mulholland, program manager and vice president of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “Their expertise and collaboration with our NASA customer in difficult conditions allowed us to make the most of this mission.”