Boeing Returns Space Capsule to Earth With Much Work to Do
(Bloomberg) -- Boeing Co. successfully landed its new CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Sunday after a two-day flight cut short by a software glitch during the vessel’s ascent that ruined its plan to dock with the International Space Station.
The Starliner touched down at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 5:58 a.m. local time, 35 minutes after flight controllers fired an engine burn to de-orbit the craft, marking the first time NASA had landed a capsule built for humans on land.
It made 33 orbits during its flight, which began at 6:36 a.m. ET Friday at Cape Canaveral, Florida. But its failure to reach the Space Station was more glaring, and Boeing and NASA officials worked to highlight successes over disappointment.
“Overall, this is a good test,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a post-flight news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We’re going to get a lot of important information from this test that we’re going to use to move forward.”
The entry, descent and landing was a critical test of Boeing’s new spacecraft, which is designed to carry as many as seven people to and from the space station. The flight was the first time the craft’s heat shield and two-stage parachute systems were exposed to the 3,000F (1,649C) heat and stress encountered upon re-entry.
Boeing and NASA plan several weeks of reviews on the vehicle and the data collected during the 48-hour flight test, with no decisions before then on whether the agency will require the company to perform a second flight without crews, said Steve Stich, NASA’s deputy manager for the commercial crew program.
The Starliner mishap Friday represented another high-profile setback for an aerospace giant that is already contending with the prolonged grounding of its top-selling commercial jet. The flight’s successful return will launch a thorough “root cause” review of why timer software did not operate as expected, Boeing and NASA officials said Saturday at a news conference.
After launch, Boeing quickly diagnosed the orbit problem as a “data-retrieval” software issue in which the craft had collected the wrong mission time as it separated from a United Launch Alliance rocket. Once engineers had corrected the Starliner’s “mission elapsed timer” system, the vehicle had used too much fuel to continue to the space station. The vehicle’s incorrect timing was 11 hours from the actual mission time, a Boeing senior vice president, Jim Chilton, said Sunday.
Boeing and NASA concluded that maintaining a lower orbit of about 250 kilometers (155 miles) would be safer to guard fuel supply and allow for the landing maneuvers. Boeing had planned to dock with the ISS for almost a week and return to Earth Dec. 28.
The inability to dock with the space station prevented Boeing from delivering holiday gifts and some foods that were aboard the Starliner for astronauts working at the orbital laboratory. “I would like to express Boeing’s regret to the space station crew for not bringing the Christmas presents,” Chilton said. “Not cool.”
In 2014, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station. Since then, both companies have suffered delays that have put the program more than two years behind schedule. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. flew its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station in March.
At a Dec. 20 news conference, Bridenstine said the Starliner issue doesn’t automatically affect the time frame for SpaceX’s plans to fly astronauts in 2020, nor does it mean Boeing will be required to fly Starliner a second time without crew. A docking with the space station is also not a NASA requirement for either company to fly people, Stich said.
The craft’s flight path Sunday was over the southern Pacific Ocean, Baja California, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.