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Boeing Starliner OFT-2 Return to Earth, Completing its test flight to International Space Station

The U.S. aviation/aerospace tech giant accomplished a successful unmanned test flight on its second attempt to the Orbiting Laboratory, setting the stage for future astronauts' missions

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands at White Sands Missile Range’s Space Harbor, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in New Mexico. Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is Starliner’s second uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. OFT-2 serves as an end-to-end test of the system's capabilities. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

May 26, 2022 A Boeing Co. (NASDAQ; BA) spacecraft landed in the desert on Wednesday after undocking from the International Space Station, marking the end of a test mission the company first tried to complete in 2019.

Starliner CST-100 spacecraft touched down in the White Sands Missile Range, a U.S. Army facility in New Mexico, at 6:49 p.m EDT (2249 UTC) on Wednesday, hitting the desert dirt just less than half a mile (0.5 km) from its preliminary landing point. The spacecraft left the ISS at 2:36 p.m EDT (1836 UTC). At 6:05 p.m (2205 GMT), the spacecraft made the 58-second de-orbit ignition, decreasing its speed by 459 km/h. The capsule separated from the service module a few minutes after the end of the burn and began plunging into Earth's atmosphere at 19:33 EDT (2233 GMT). Completing the return trip in 4hrs from ISS.

Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (NASA)
Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, described the landing as "picture perfect" during Wednesday night's briefing, saying that the test flight accomplished all of its mission objectives. “Putting the vehicle through its paces on this flight is really the only way to prepare us for the crewed flight test,”

The spaceship, which wasn’t carrying crew members for the mission, autonomously docked with the space station's forward port on Friday night, about a day after a rocket blasted it into orbit from a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Photo Credits: Sergey Korsakov (ISS), NASA (Bill Ingalls)

During the mission, the Starliner completed a series of maneuvers to demonstrate its ability to fly and make adjustments in orbit to reach the station. Teams at NASA and Boeing showed how the vehicle and facility could operate while connected to ISS, equalizing the pressure between the ship and the station and using the station’s power to recharge the vehicle’s batteries. For Boeing, the success was hard-won and long delayed. The first OFT, which launched in December 2019, ended prematurely when Starliner suffered software glitches that prevented it from rendezvous with the ISS.

The makeup flight OFT-2 was originally supposed to launch in August 2021, but issues with stuck valves in Starliner's propulsion system grounded the vehicle just hours before liftoff. Finishing the flight sets the stage for a launch of the Starliner with astronauts on board, though teams from NASA and Boeing plan further analysis of several technical issues and hiccups that emerged on the test flight.

The team faced issues with thrusters on Starliner's service module failing during the orbital insertion burn, which occurred about 30 minutes after launch. It was two of the twelve rear-facing Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control (OMAC) thrusters that failed during orbital insertion and two of the System's 28 thrusters. Reaction Control System (RCS) on the Service Module that failed during the approach to the ISS. Shortly after this incident, the mission team expressed confidence that the thruster failures would not affect the rest of OFT-2. And as Starliner approached the space station on Friday (May 20), an additional two thrusters needed to be shut down, this time in the capsule's reaction control system. However, the company was able to have them available for use for the return trip, according to NASA’s live stream. In addition, devices that cool the vehicle didn’t function as anticipated during the flight to the station, but teams were able to manage the issue and the focus will be on several post-flight Inspections and tests in the near future.

Mark Nappi, a Boeing vice president overseeing the Starliner program, said the company learned a significant amount from the test flight and was pleased with the results

Teams will soon move Starliner to a staging area to prep the vehicle for transport back to Boeing's facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Mark Nappi, said he expects Starliner to return to KSC around June 9, 2022.

However, neither Stich nor Nappi were willing to commit to when the crewed test flight, called the CFT, would launch. The target is the end of this year, but Stich said it “possibly” could move to the first quarter of 2023. This flight was a step forward, but “we just have to look at the rest of the parts ”, including software updates for the crew. flight displays, spacesuits, seats and a life support system test expected this summer, not to mention adapting it to all other trips to the ISS. Nappi agreed that there will be no rush and while they are working to get the vehicle ready for the CFT “we only have a little time ahead of us” to gather all the necessary information “and make sure we can stick to the schedule we’ve already come up with.”

Suni Williams, Steve Stich and Joel Montalbano at Post-Flight Breifing (NASA)

“Congratulations to the NASA and Boeing teams,” said Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Program. “I am excited to see the completion of a critical step in bringing another system online to transport long-duration crew members to and from the International Space Station. Soon, we hope to see crews arrive at the space station on Starliner to continue the important microgravity scientific research and discovery made possible by the orbiting laboratory.”

NASA astronaut Suni Williams, who also participated in the post-landing briefing, voiced her excitement to potentially fly on the vehicle during upcoming missions, though a specific crew rotation has yet to be determined.

Williams nodded that she's ready to "kick out Rosie and Jeb and take the next flight," referring to the two "passengers" that flew on OFT-2. Rosie is Rosie the Rocketeer, Boeing's test dummy, clad in the company's blue spacesuit and strapped into Starliner's command chair. Jeb, a toy plushy strapped into a seat next to Rosie, is an astronaut character from the space agency/rocket launch simulator game Kerbal Space Program.

Rosie and Jeb were not the only things along for the ride on OFT-2. Starliner brought up nearly 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of cargo and supplies for astronauts aboard the space station and carried down to Earth about 600 pounds (272 kg) of gear. During OFT-1, Rosie was outfitted with 15 sensors to collect data on what astronauts will experience during flights on Starliner. For OFT-2, spacecraft data capture ports previously connected to Rosie’s 15 sensors were used to collect data from sensors placed along with the seat pallet, which is the infrastructure that holds all the crew seats in place. Among the cargo returned were three Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System reusable tanks that provide breathable air to station crew members. The tanks will be refurbished on Earth and sent back to the station on a future flight.

"We're getting our crewed test vehicle ready to go by the end of the year," NASA's head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders said at a pre-launch press conference earlier this month. Boeing signed a multibillion-dollar contract with the Commercial Crew Program in 2014. SpaceX signed a similar deal at the same time and has already launched four operational astronaut missions to the ISS with its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.

OFT-2 Mission Summary!

As part of the flight test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing accomplished planned test objectives, including:

  • Starliner launch and normal trajectory to orbital insertion

  • Launch of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V and dual-engine Centaur second stage

  • Ascent abort emergency detection system validation

  • Starliner separation from the Atlas V rocket

  • Approach, rendezvous, and docking with International Space Station

  • Starliner hatch opening and closing, astronaut ingress, and quiescent mode

  • Crew habitability and internal interface evaluation

  • Starliner undocking and departure from the space station

  • Starliner deorbit, and crew module separation from the service module

  • Starliner's descent and atmospheric entry with an aero-deceleration system

  • Precision targeted landing and recovery at Western U.S.


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