CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — A Boeing airliner’s crew cab returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts boarded it.
The return trip was fast: The Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting laboratory, with attached airbags to cushion the landing. Only mannequin was twisted.
Thrust failures and cooling system snags aside, the Starliner seemed to have settled the high-stakes getaway, two and a half years after its first failed attempt. Houston flight controllers applauded and cheered the attack in bull’s-eye.
“It’s great to have this amazing test flight behind us,” said Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager. He described the demonstration as “very successful” as all objectives were achieved.
Vice President Mark Naby of Boeing added, “On a scale of one to 10, I think I’d give it a 15.”
Based on these early results, NASA astronauts will bring the next flight to the space station, possibly by the end of the year. The space agency has long wanted two competing US companies to transport astronauts, for added insurance, as it has dramatically reduced its dependence on Russia for flights to and from the space station.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the well-established flagship, launching astronauts since 2020 and even tourists. Crew capsules drop off the coast of Florida, and Boeing’s Starliner returns to the expansive and deserted missile range of White Sands in New Mexico.
Boeing canceled its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software bugs left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly wiped it out. The company fixed the defects and tried again last summer, but valve wear stopped the countdown. After more repairs, the Starliner finally took off from Cape Canaveral Last Thursday, it docked at the space station Friday.
Station astronauts tested Starliner’s communication and computer systems during her five days on the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of groceries and other supplies that flew into the Boeing capsule, then filled them with empty air tanks and other discarded equipment.
The folded American flag sent by Boeing remained behind, only to be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.
“We’re a little sad to see it go,” astronaut Bob Hines said over the radio as the capsule flew away.
Along the flight was a Starliner test dummy – Rosie the Rocketeer, a take-off on Rosie the Riveter in World War II.
The repairs and migrations cost Boeing nearly $600 million.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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