0214 GMT February 23, 2020
The Starliner un-manned spacecraft descended into the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range in the predawn darkness on Sunday, ending a two-day demonstration that should have lasted more than a week, The Associated Press reported.
All three main parachutes popped open and airbags also inflated around the spacecraft to ease the impact.
After seeing this first test flight cut short and the space station docking canceled because of an improperly set clock on the capsule, Boeing employees appeared relieved to get the Starliner back to Earth in one piece.
The capsule’s first trip to space began with a smooth rocket ride from Cape Canaveral on Friday. But barely a half 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 wasn’t 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. Despite its own setbacks, commercial rival SpaceX remains in the lead in NASA’s commercial crew program.
SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule successfully completed its first orbital demo last March. While the flight to the space station went well, the capsule exploded a month later on a test stand at Cape Canaveral.
If a launch abort test goes well next month, SpaceX could start launching NASA astronauts by spring and end a nearly nine-year gap in flying people from Cape Canaveral.
As its space shuttle program was winding down, NASA looked to private industry to take over cargo and crew deliveries to the space station. The goal was to launch NASA astronauts by 2017.
Because of delays, NASA is looking to buy another two seats on Russian rockets in 2020 and 2021 to guarantee a continuing US presence on the space station.