Starliner's perfect touchdown is consolation after ISS mission flop

Boeing safely landed its crew capsule in the New Mexico desert yesterday after an aborted test flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Starliner descended into the White Sands Missile Range, ending a two-day demo that should have lasted more than a week.

A trio of red, white and blue parachutes popped open and airbags inflated around the spacecraft to ease the impact.

“Congratulations, Starliner,” said Mission Control, calling it a successful touchdown.

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A dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer – after Rosie the Riveter from World War II – rode in the commander’s seat.

Also returning were Christmas presents, clothes and food that should have been delivered to the space station crew.

After the ISS docking was cancelled because an improperly set clock meant Starliner failed to reach the right orbit, Boeing staff were relieved to get the capsule back.

Recovery teams cheered as they watched the capsule drift down through the air and make a bullseye landing. The touchdown was broadcast live on Nasa TV; infrared cameras painted the descending capsule in a ghostly white.

The astronauts assigned to the first Starliner crew – two from Nasa and one from Boeing – were part of the welcoming committee.

“A beautiful soft landing,” said astronaut Mike Fincke. “Can’t wait to try it out.”

It was the first US-made capsule designed for astronauts to make a ground landing after returning from orbit. Nasa’s early capsules – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – all had splashdowns.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which made its orbital debut last winter, also aims for the ocean at mission’s end.

Minutes after touchdown, Nasa and Boeing officials poured into Mission Control in Houston to congratulate the team. The Starliner also got a personalised name: Calypso, after Jacques Cousteau’s boat.

Its first trip to space began with a smooth rocket ride from Florida’s 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, which did not sync up with the Atlas V rocket, throwing off the capsule’s timing. It then burned so much fuel trying to orient itself that there wasn’t enough left for a space station rendezvous.

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, about 100 fewer than planned. But Boeing’s flight director called the test mission “a huge success”.

Nasa is uncertain if it will demand another test flight from Boeing – to include a space station visit – before putting any of its astronauts on board.

Boeing had been shooting for its first astronaut mission in the first half of 2020. The Calypso capsule is supposed to be recycled for that flight; each Starliner is built to fly in space 10 times.

Despite its own setbacks, SpaceX remains in the lead in Nasa’s commercial crew programme.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule 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 programme 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.

But 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.

Even when private companies are regularly carrying up astronauts for Nasa, the space agency always will reserve a seat for a Russian in exchange for a free US seat on a Soyuz.

Over the years, Soyuz rides have cost Nasa billions at up to $86m (€78m) apiece.

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