Starliner Returns from OFT-2

Starliner Returns from OFT-2

A successful landing in New Mexico on 25 May for Boeing’s Starliner capsule after leaving the ISS. The success of the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) uncrewed mission should permit a forthcoming test flight, this time crewed.

After take-off on 19 May, Boeing’s Starliner capsule proceeded for the first time to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) two days later. The flight proceeded automatically since no astronauts were aboard for this test. 25 May was flagged for the return, another very delicate stage.

Parachutes and Airbags for Landing

A quick reminder that Boeing is the second company after SpaceX to have been selected by NASA to transport astronauts to the ISS. However, Elon Musk’s firm was the first to be certified by the American agency for its Crew Dragon capsule. After a curtailed flight in December 2019 and a cancelled take-off in August 2021, Boeing’s Starliner capsule had not passed the test of a complete automatic flight to and from the ISS (see this article for the context).

That has now been ticked off with the success of the OFT-2 (Orbital Flight Test 2) mission. Following the successful docking on 21 May, the ISS astronauts accessed Starliner and met the Rosie the Riveter* dummy, bedecked with sensors, intended to check the proper operation of Boeing’s capsule.
(*) The name is a tribute to Rosie the Riveter, a woman who featured on American posters during the Second World War. Below, a video which shows the closing of the hatch before the ship’s departure, an opportunity to see inside it.

Then on 25 May, the Starliner capsule left the ISS and started its return to Earth. Usually, American capsules splash down at sea (that is still the case for SpaceX Crew Dragon), but Boeing’s comes down below three parachutes and cushions the arrival on terra firma with airbags located below it (the thermal shield which protects it during re-entry to the atmosphere has previously been jettisoned).
The video below is the NASA recording of the live monitoring of the return.

As on the curtailed flight of December 2019, the Starliner landed at the White Sands base in New Mexico. This time, for OFT-2, the six-day mission was carried out in full. NASA and Boeing believe that all objectives have been achieved. Certainly there was a failure of two orbital manoeuvring thrusters, but the other 18 took over. Built-in redundancy has therefore worked. The few other unforeseen technical contingencies were considered as expected for an orbital test flight of this kind. So, the next stage could well be a crewed Starliner flight to and from the ISS (late 2022 or 2023). A further success would then result in the certification of a second crewed American ship, giving NASA the operational flexibility it desires.

Boeing's teams take charge of OTF-2's Starliner capsule soon after its landing in New Mexico. With his back to us, in the blue suit, NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Boeing’s teams take charge of OTF-2’s Starliner capsule soon after its landing in New Mexico. With his back to us, in the blue suit, NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls