As it approaches the thick inner mantle of Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will ignite its thrusters with intense fires of heat and speed before deploying parachutes to slow its descent. It is expected to land in a puff of sand in a remote area of the New Mexican desert, called the White Sands, which has long been the site of space and weapons tests.
If all goes well with the landing, the Starliner, whose crew consists only of a mannequin in a spacesuit for this test mission, could carry its first payload of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2022.
A series of data and hardware issues also hampered Starliner’s ability to dock with the International Space Station on Friday.
“I don’t know about you, but the last few hours have been agonizing,” NASA associate administrator Catherine Lueders said during a Friday night news conference. “Seeing the beautiful spacecraft sitting out of reach of the International Space Station was very challenging. But as we’ve been talking about over the past few days, this is a really crucial show.”
In the end, the spacecraft was able to grab its port after about an hour’s delay.
Notably, the first attempt to send the Starliner on an orbital test run in late 2019 had to be cut short — returning the car directly to Earth rather than docking to the International Space Station — after software problems derailed the car. It took nearly two years of troubleshooting before the Starliner was ready to return to the launch pad. Then the sticky fuse problem delayed the capsule’s return to flight.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft entered operation in 2020 and has conducted five missions for NASA so far.
After this Starliner test mission is over, NASA and Boeing will work through the data collected by the spacecraft and try to come to an agreement that it is ready to fly for astronauts.
“We were going to learn a lot,” Mark Naby, director of Boeing’s Starliner program, told reporters on Friday. “We will take this information and apply it to the development of our spacecraft. We are very satisfied with what we have learned about how the team has interacted with it.”
NASA hopes Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will give the human spaceflight program a surplus, meaning that if one or the others spacecraft are in trouble and must be stopped, it won’t affect NASA’s ability to get the crew to the space station. International.
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