December 2, 2022

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The Starliner space capsule returns to Earth

The Starliner space capsule returns to Earth

Starliner landing pod.

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The new American space capsule Starliner landed safely on Earth on the night of May 25-26, 2022 after a successful unmanned test flight. The new spacecraft, designed and built by Boeing, has landed using parachutes at the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Boeing plans to use this new space capsule this year to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

The reusable Starliner space capsule was developed under a NASA commercial crew contract and can accommodate four to seven astronauts who are transported to the International Space Station with this spacecraft. Drawing on its rich experience in human spaceflight, Boeing has decided to design a classic conical space capsule for the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The unmanned Starliner spacecraft was launched by an Atlas V rocket on May 19, 2022, after which the capsule attaches to the American part of the International Space Station about 24 hours later. Safe and error-free communication to the space station was the main goal of this test flight for Boeing and NASA, as it failed during an earlier mission in 2019. After Starliner attached itself to the space station during this second test flight, the access hatch for the space capsule was opened. The residents of the International Space Station entered the new spacecraft.

On board this unmanned space capsule was 245 kilograms of cargo, including some flags from historically black American colleges and universities. Just as during the first unmanned test flight, a “pseudo” astronaut was aboard the space capsule again. This dummy, called “Rosie the Rocketer”, weighs 81 kilograms and is equipped with numerous sensors to allow engineers to determine conditions on board the capsule during launch or return to Earth. Starliner finally separated from the space station on May 25, 2022, after which the unmanned capsule began to re-enter the atmosphere. Using heat shield, parachutes, and inflatable airbags, the capsule eventually landed safely in a desolate area of ​​New Mexico. It’s rare for US spacecraft to land on land, as the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and NASA spacecraft like the Apollo capsule have landed constantly at sea. Only American spacecraft have always landed on Earth upon return in the past.

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Despite the fact that this second test flight went well and all goals were achieved, there were again some minor issues. Shortly after launch, for example, problems arose with two of the space capsule’s thrusters and fortunately this problem could be solved by another thruster. Boeing will now subject the capsule again to a thorough analysis so that the cause of this problem can be determined. If this problem can be resolved quickly, Starliner will likely send American astronauts into space for the first time this year.