Boeing’s uncrewed “Starliner” capsule has safely returned to New Mexico after a successful six-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
It touched down at the White Sands Space Harbor at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 4:49 p.m. MDT on Wednesday, May 25, 202 to conclude its long-awaited Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2).
The success means NASA’s Commercial Crew Program—an effort to use private companies to take NASA astronauts into low-Earth orbit after the Space Shuttle was retired—is almost complete.
Back in 2014 NASA selected both SpaceX and Boeing to fly astronauts to the ISS on its behalf. It’s an attempt to use public-private partnerships to make space travel more affordable.
Starliner—also called CST-100—joins SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which has flown four scheduled crewed missions to the ISS since its inaugural flight in 2020 (and 18 astronauts in total). Although this was an uncrewed test flight, Starliner’s next trip to the ISS is likely to be in March 2023 when it takes three astronauts to the ISS.
If it completes that mission it will become the second private spacecraft to take humans to the space station—effectively NASA’s newest “space taxi” that can launch astronauts from US soil. NASA wants to send one Starliner and one Crew Dragon to the ISS each year.
For OFT-2 it launched May 19 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday, May 19, 2022. It docked with the ISS 26 hours later and spent four days there.
It was effectively a cargo mission as well as test flight. It carried 500 lbs of NASA cargo and crew supplies to the space station and returned to Earth with nearly 600 lbs of cargo. That includes Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System reusable tanks that provide breathable air to astronauts on the ISS. The tanks will be refurbished on Earth and sent back to station on a future flight, said NASA.
It wasn’t totally uncrewed. On board was “Rosie the Rocketeer,” a crash test dummy wearing a red and white polka dot face mask and bandanna in a tribute to one of the original “Rosie the Riveter,” an icon of World War II that represented the women who worked in factories and shipyards—including for Boeing. Rosie was outfitted with 15 sensors to collect data on what astronauts will experience during flights on Starliner.
“It’s been an honor to take part in this and be a tiny cog in the wheel that is the Commercial Crew Program and the amazing teams, the operational teams, the design teams, that put this vehicle together,” said Bob Hines, a NASA astronaut on the ISS as he closed the hatch on Starliner at 3:00 p.m. ET on May 25 in preparation for undocking.
“It was really cool to be on this end of it and watch the culmination of those efforts and all of those activities. So, here’s to you, to all the people who put their hearts and souls into designing and maintaining this vehicle. Well done.”
The pressure was on to get this mission right. After software problems on its uncrewed test flight on December 20, 2019 Starliner failed to reach the ISS after a timing anomaly. During the much-delayed re-run in summer 2021 the mission was aborted after corroded valves were discovered.
Although it can take seven astronauts, for NASA it’s likely to take four astronauts plus cargo. It autonomously docks with the ISS using a vision-based system, but it’s also got backup manual controls.
“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. “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.”
Although SpaceX gets a lot of attention for its reusable rockets and faster pace of development, Boeing has been a prime contractor to NASA for a very long time. It built the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo missions to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
Designed for orbital spaceflight and launches vertically on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida, it lands back on Earth by parachute. That’s similar to the SpaceX Crew Dragon, though it returns via a splashdown off the Florida coast.