The maiden flight of the Starliner spacecraft has touched down safely following an off-nominal orbital insertion that cut its mission short.
Boeing’s Starliner Orbital Flight test was launched aboard an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral on December 20. The spacecraft was placed into a suborbital trajectory and was expected to fire its booster to raise its orbit to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). However, the boosters initially failed to fire due to what Boeing has described as a timing error.
Ground teams were eventually able to bypass the automated system and fire the boosters manually raising the spacecraft into a stable orbit. However, rectifying the anomalous orbital insertion necessitated the consumption of significantly more fuel than planned thus precluding a rendezvous with the ISS. With the primary objective of the mission now impossible, ground teams placed the spacecraft into an orbit that would allow it to return to White Sands in New Mexico within 48 hours.
On Sunday 22 at 12:58 UTC, the Starliner spacecraft successfully completed its first deorbit, descent and touchdown. The spacecraft drifted gracefully down to Earth under three red, white and blue parachutes and touched down at the White Sands Space Harbor cushioned by six large airbags.
Following the touchdown, Boeing recovery crews raced to the capsule quickly encasing it under a protective environmental enclosure. Soon after, the spacecraft’s hatch was opened completing the mock recovery procedure in just over an hour.
As the sun rose and the world got its first look at a recovered Starliner, the spacecraft appeared to be in very good condition. “The vessel looks great,” said Jim Chilton, vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch division. “The ground crews, they’re telling us there’s hardly any charring, [it’s] perfectly level on the airbags, and that bodes very well for reusability.”
NASA and Boeing crews will now review all the data collected from the first orbital flight test to determine the next step. The initial mission requirement of the test included a rendezvous and docking with the ISS. As the spacecraft was not able to do that, it appears that this benchmark and as such the mission were not completed successfully.
However, at post-launch conferences, both NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and Boeing’s Jim Chilton would not confirm whether the failure to dock with the ISS would necessitate the completion of a second uncrewed orbital flight test or not. This may indicate that both feel that enough of the key mission parameters were met to enable Boeing to move forward with a crewed Starliner test flight.