Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft landing under parachutes in the New Mexico desert
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

After a week at the space station, Boeing's new passenger spaceship returned to Earth intact this afternoon, landing in the New Mexico desert with the help of parachutes. The test flight for Starliner showcased the vehicle's ability to launch to space, dock with the station, and then return home safely.

The Starliner capsule was built in partnership with NASA in order to launch the agency's astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The mission is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which challenged private companies with creating space taxis to carry people. Before NASA will allow its personnel to ride on the vehicle, it wanted Starliner to demonstrate that it could go through all the motions without people on board.

The uncrewed test flight OFT-2 has come to an end, with Starliner performing every major step it was meant to accomplish. On May 19th, the capsule was launched to space on top of an Atlas V rocket, and it docked with the space station on May 20th, before heading home. It wasn't a smooth flight. There were a number of issues with Starliner's various engines, which are used to propel the vehicle through space. Starliner was able to complete OFT-2 despite some problems.

With today’s landing, OFT-2 has come to an end

It has been a rough road to get to this launch. Orbital Flight Test-2 is the name of this test flight. It is a do-over of the test flight that Boeing tried to perform in 2019. In December of that year, Boeing launched Starliner without a crew on board, sending it to space on another Atlas V rocket. A software glitch on Starliner caused the capsule to fire its thrusters in the wrong place after it separated from the rocket. Boeing was unable to show the ability to dock with the space station because of the issue. Boeing had to bring the spaceship home early and land it in New Mexico, the same location Starliner landed today.

After finding that more than a dozen propellant valves were sticking and not opening properly, Boeing halted the launch of Starliner just hours before it was to take off. It took Boeing until now to fix the issues, and the company says it's possible that a redesign of the valves will happen in the future. Starliner has shown that it can launch and autonomously dock with the International Space Station, a key feature that it will have to perform over and over again when people are on board.

Starliner needs to land in order to bring passengers home safely. This afternoon, the capsule left the station at 2:36PM and flew around the station and away from the lab. At 6:05PM, Starliner used its onboard thrusters to take itself out of the air and onto the surface of Earth. The vehicle plunged through the planet's atmosphere at a temperature of up to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. Starliner used a series of parachutes to slow its fall before landing on top of the white sand. It was the second successful landing for Starliner, as Boeing already showcased the vehicle during its first failed test flight in 2019.

The touchdown came at 5:49pm Central Time, almost exactly six days into the mission, according to a NASA communications officer.

There was some concern about the landing as Starliner had a number of problems with its thrusters. Two of the Starliner's 12 thrusters failed when the capsule went to space. Boeing said the thrusters cut off early because of drops in chamber pressure. The capsule got into space as planned after the flight control system diverted to a backup. Despite the two failed thrusters, the same ones were used to take Starliner out of space.

There were bugs throughout the flight

There were other bugs on the flight. A couple of smaller thrusters that were used to maneuver Starliner during docking failed due to low chamber pressure. It didn't affect the rendezvous operations at all. The engineering team had to manage the extra cold temperatures in the thermal systems of Starliner because the Boeing team noticed that some of them showed extra cold temperatures.

Starliner accomplished many of its goals while docked with the International Space Station. The astronauts on board opened the hatch of the Starliner and retrieved cargo. The capsule has brought about 600 pounds of cargo back to Earth, as well as Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin that rode along inside Starliner to mimic what it will be like when humans ride on board.

With Starliner back on Earth, there is a lot of work to be done. NASA and Boeing will study the failures that occurred on this flight and determine if Starliner is ready to carry people to space during a test flight called CFT, which could occur by the end of the year. Boeing has fallen far behind NASA's other Commercial Crew providers. The Crew Dragon capsule, which carried its first passengers in 2020, has already flown five crewed flights to the station.

If Starliner is cleared to fly people, NASA will have two different American companies capable of taking agency astronauts to space.