WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Boeing Co (BA.N)’s Starliner astronaut spacecraft landed in the New Mexico desert on Sunday, the company said, after faulty software forced officials to cut short an unmanned mission aimed at taking it to the International Space Station.
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which had been launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, is seen after its descent by parachute following an abbreviated Orbital Flight Test for NASA’s Commercial Crew programs in White Sands, New Mexico, U.S. December 22, 2019. NASA/Bill Ingalls via REUTERS
The landing at 7:58 a.m. ET (1258 GMT) in the White Sands desert capped a turbulent 48 hours for Boeing’s botched milestone test of an astronaut capsule that is designed to help NASA regain its human spaceflight capabilities.
“We hit the bull’s-eye,” a Boeing spokesman said on a livestream of the landing.
The landing will yield the mission’s most valuable test data after failing to meet its core objective of docking to the space station.
After Starliner’s touchdown, teams of engineers in trucks raced to inspect the vehicle, whose six airbags cushioned its impact on the desert surface as planned, a live video feed showed.
The spacecraft was in an apparently stable condition after landing, according to images posted by officials from the U.S. space agency NASA.
The CST-100 Starliner’s debut launch to orbit was a milestone test for Boeing. The company is vying with SpaceX, the privately held rocket company of billionaire high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, to revive NASA’s human spaceflight capabilities. SpaceX carried out a successful unmanned flight of its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station in March.
The Starliner capsule was successfully launched from Florida on Friday, but an automated timer error prevented it from attaining the right orbit to meet and dock with the space station.
That failure came as Boeing sought an engineering and public relations victory in a year that has seen corporate crisis over the grounding of its 737 MAX jetliner following two fatal crashes of the aircraft. The company’s shares dropped 1.6% on Friday.
(Graphic: Space missions – here)
Ahead of Sunday’s landing, Starliner’s three main parachutes deployed just over one mile (1,600 meters) from the Earth’s surface after enduring intense heat from the violent reentry through the atmosphere, plummeting at 25 times the speed of sound.
The parachute deployment, one of the most challenging procedures under the program to develop a commercial manned space capsule, earned Boeing a fresh win after a previous mishap where one parachute failed to deploy during a November test of Starliner’s abort thrusters.
That test tossed the capsule miles into the sky to demonstrate its ability to land a crew safely back on the ground in the event of a launch failure.
For the current mission, Boeing and NASA officials said they still do not understand why software caused the craft to miss the orbit required.
Sunday’s landing marked the first time a U.S. orbital space capsule designed for humans landed on land.
All past U.S. capsules, including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, splashed down in the ocean. Russia’s Soyuz capsules and China’s past crew capsules made land landings.
The now-retired Space Shuttle used to glide in like a massive plane.
Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Frances Kerry