Boeing's CST-100 Starliner returns to Earth after shortened mission
After a dramatic two-day first mission, Boeing's CST-100 Starliner has returned to Earth. On December 22, at 5:48 am MT, the unmanned orbital space capsule made a soft, controlled landing at the US Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico after a shortened mission due to an onboard malfunction.
Designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil, the Starliner's First Orbital Mission was intended to field test the spacecraft's automated systems before its first manned mission. However, this changed after its predawn launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on December 20, 2019, when a timer malfunction occurred after the spacecraft's separation from the Centaur upper stage.
According to Boeing, the onboard mission timer accidentally reset itself, causing the flight computer to lose its place in the mission timeline. As a result, it thought it was supposed to carry out an orbital maneuver and it fired its engines, causing it to go into the wrong orbit while using up too much fuel to allow it to rendezvous with the ISS.
Mission Control was able to salvage the situation by placing the Starliner in a lower, stable orbit, where they were able to carry out systems checks before giving the capsule the command to return to Earth today. The craft deployed its parachutes after re-entry and a series of airbags allowed it to softly touch down – making it the first US space capsule to make a landing on American soil instead of the ocean.
Boeing and NASA have both said that, in spite of the truncated mission time, most of the objectives have been met. The Starliner demonstrated that its key systems can function, including the soft-landing system that allows the craft to return intact for refurbishment and reuse. In addition, an anthropomorphic test device called "Rosie" was in the commander's seat, where it collected data to ensure that the capsule is safe for future astronauts.
The Starliner's crew module is scheduled for return to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for data retrieval, analysis, and refurbishment. The next flight will use a different Starliner that will carry Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann on the Crewed Flight Test. However, there is no word yet as to whether the malfunction on this flight will result in a delay.
"The Starliner team's quick recovery and ability to achieve many mission objectives – including safe deorbit, re-entry and landing – is a testament to the people of Boeing who have dedicated years of their lives working toward the achievement of commercial human spaceflight," says John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing's Commercial Crew Program. "Their professionalism and collaboration with our NASA customer in challenging conditions allowed us to make the most of this mission."