A Boeing crew capsule that had to be brought back to Earth after a failed mission to the International Space Station is threatening to set back the company’s effort to launch astronauts for NASA next year.
The Starliner capsule – the first of its kind from America – which was carrying a dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer has safely landed in the New Mexico desert.
It comes just two days into a demo which should have lasted more than a week.
Despite the failed mission, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke said he “can’t wait to try it out”.
He described the Starliner’s landing at the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range as “beautiful” and “soft”.
All three main parachutes popped open and airbags also inflated around the spacecraft to ease the impact.
We’re live with the #Starliner landing at @WSMissileRange. Our landing and recovery team, @USArmy and @NASA teams are on the ground. Flight controllers and engineers are at Boeing Mission Control at @NASAKennedy and @NASA_Johnson Mission Control. https://t.co/a4VP2oAYep
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) December 22, 2019
The capsule was designed so astronauts who were returning from orbit could make a ground landing.
“Congratulations, Starliner,” said mission control, calling it a successful touchdown.
Returning alongside the test dummy were holiday presents, clothes and food that should have been delivered to the space station crew.
After seeing this first test flight cut short and the space station docking cancelled because of an improperly set clock on the capsule, Boeing employees were relieved to get the Starliner back.
It was the first US capsule designed for astronauts to return from orbit and land on the ground.
NASA’s early crew capsules all had splashdowns. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which made its orbital debut last (northern) winter, also aims for the ocean at mission’s end.
The astronauts assigned to the first Starliner crew, two from NASA and one from Boeing, were part of the welcoming committee in the bitter cold.
The capsule’s first trip to space began with a smooth rocket ride from Cape Canaveral on Friday. But barely half an hour into the flight, it failed to fire its thrusters to give chase to the space station and ended up in the wrong orbit.
The problem was with the Starliner’s internal clock: it did not sync up with the Atlas V rocket, throwing off the capsule’s timing.
The capsule burned so much fuel trying to orient itself in orbit that there was not enough left for a space station rendezvous.
Flight controllers tried to correct the problem but between the spacecraft’s position and a gap in communications, their signals did not get through. They later managed to reset the clock.
Boeing is still trying to figure out how the timing error occurred. The mission lasted nearly 50 hours and included 33 orbits around the earth.
NASA is uncertain whether it will demand another test flight from Boeing, to include a space station visit, before putting its astronauts on board.
Boeing had been shooting for its first astronaut mission in the first half of 2020. This capsule is supposed to be recycled for the second flight with crew.