Boeing capsule returns from space station after uncrewed test flight

The Boeing crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts board.

It was a quick return trip: The Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting lab, with airbags attached to cushion the landing. Only one mannequin was fastened.

Propeller failures and cooling system snags aside, Starliner appeared to secure its high-stakes test cruise two-and-a-half years after its first failed attempt. Flight controllers in Houston applauded and cheered the landing in the center of the bullseye.

“It’s great to have this incredible test flight behind us,” said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program. He described the demo as “extremely successful,” with all goals met.

Boeing’s Mark Nappi added: “On a scale of one to 10, I think I’d give it a 15.”

Based on these early results, NASA astronauts will join up next for a trip to the space station. The space agency has long wanted two competing US companies to transport astronauts, giving it additional insurance as it has dramatically reduced its reliance on Russia for trips to and from the space station.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts as early as 2020 and even tourists. His crew’s capsules go down off the Florida coast; Boeing’s Starliner returns to the US Army’s sprawling White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

This NASA TV image shows the Boeing Starliner approaching the International Space Station last Friday. (NASA/The Associated Press)

Boeing scrapped its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software bugs left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly doomed it. The company fixed the faults and tried again last summer, but corroded valves stopped the countdown. After more repairs, the Starliner finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and docked with the space station on Friday.

The station’s astronauts tested Starliner’s computer and communication systems during their five days on the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of kilograms of groceries and other supplies that flew into the Boeing capsule, then filled it with empty air tanks and other discarded equipment.

A folded American flag sent by Boeing was left behind, to be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.

“We’re a little sad to see her go,” station astronaut Bob Hines said over the radio as the capsule pulled away.

Along for the ride was the Starliner test dummy: Rosie the Rocketeer, a takeoff of Rosie the Riveter from World War II.

The repairs and renovation cost Boeing nearly US$600 million.

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