Life Science Boeing’s Starliner capsule returns from International Space Station
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Boeing’s Starliner capsule returns from International Space Station

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Boeing’s crew taxi has returned to Earth from the International Space Station, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts climb aboard.

The Starliner capsule parachuted on Wednesday into the New Mexico desert – with airbags attached to cushion the landing – four hours after leaving the orbiting lab.

Only a mannequin was fastened in.

Aside from thruster failures and cooling system snags, Starliner appeared to clinch its high-stakes shakedown cruise, two and a half years after its botched first try.

Flight controllers in Houston applauded and cheered the bullseye touchdown.

“It’s great to have this incredible test flight behind us,” said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program.

He described the demonstration as “extremely successful” with all objectives met.

Boeing’s Mark Nappi, a vice president, added: “On a scale of one to 10, I think I’d give it a 15.”

Based on these early results, NASA astronauts will strap in next for a trip to the space station, perhaps by the end of the year.

The space agency has long wanted two competing US companies ferrying astronauts for added insurance as it drastically reduces its reliance on Russia for rides to and from the space station.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts and even tourists since 2020.

Its crew capsules splash down off the Florida coast, while Boeing’s Starliner returns to the army’s expansive and desolate White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Boeing scrapped its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019 after software errors left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly doomed it.

The company fixed the flaws and tried again last summer but corroded valves halted the countdown.

Following more repairs, Starliner finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and docked to the space station on Friday.

Station astronauts tested Starliner’s communication and computer systems during its five days at the space station.

They also unloaded hundreds of pounds of groceries and other supplies that flew up in the Boeing capsule, then filled it with empty air tanks and other discarded gear.

A folded US flag sent up by Boeing stayed behind and will be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.

“We’re a little sad to see her go,” station astronaut Bob Hines radioed as the capsule flew away.

Along for the ride was Starliner’s test dummy – Rosie the Rocketeer, a homage to the Second World War’s Rosie the Riveter.

The repairs and do-over cost Boeing nearly $US600 million ($850 million).

-PA