Boeing’s Starliner space taxi makes flawless landing after flawed flight

Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel put a protective cover over Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after its landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi made a flawless automated landing in New Mexico today, marking the end of an orbital test flight that was cut short due to a glitch with the craft’s timing system.

Because of the glitch, NASA and Boeing had to forgo Starliner’s planned trip to the International Space Station. But the uncrewed transport notched a first in space history nevertheless by becoming the first crew-capable U.S. space capsule to make its return from orbit on land.

The spacecraft also got its christening from NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who is scheduled to fly on the craft after its refurbishment.

“A little homage to other explorers and the ships that they rode on,” Williams said during a NASA webcast. “I think we’re going to call her Calypso.”

The name paid tribute to the ship that served as the base of operations for ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. “There’s so much to discover in the ocean, and there’s so much to discover in space. It just seemed like a natural marriage,” said Williams, who was once a Navy diving officer.

No issues were reported during Calypso’s descent from orbit — which involved slowing the spacecraft down from a velocity 25 times the speed of sound, and weathering temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

All three main parachutes opened successfully, which was an improvement on the parachutes’ performance during last month’s pad abort test.

The climax came just before sunrise at 5:58 a.m. MT (4:58 a.m. PT) with Calypso’s parachute-assisted, airbag-cushioned landing at White Sands Missile Range.

“It was an absolute bull’s-eye,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

The trouble-free touchdown for the Orbital Flight Test buoyed confidence for an follow-on mission known as the Crewed Flight Test, which would send Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann to the space station and back.

“Looks like it’s going to be a smooth ride for CFT, judging by how softly and smoothly this OFT vehicle came down this morning,” Richard Jones, NASA flight director at Mission Control in Houston, was quoted as saying on the webcast.

The crew members for that future flight were on hand in New Mexico to check out Starliner after the landing. “Three parachutes, six airbags and a beautiful soft landing,” Fincke said. “Can’t wait to try it out.”

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft jettisons the heat shield before its landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (NASA Photo / Aubrey Gemignani)

Many of the flight test’s objectives were met, including establishing links with the space station and extending the Starliner craft’s docking mechanism. “We got some objectives done,” Jones said.

But because Calypso wasn’t able to hook up with the space station, none of the objectives relating to an actual docking could be checked off.

NASA and Boeing will have to review the data from the flight — including readings from the sensors attached to a test dummy nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer — and then decide what steps need to be taken before the crewed test flight.

Jim Chilton, senior vice president of the space and launch division for Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said that “the vessel looks great,” and that Rosie the Rocketeer “lived in air-conditioned splendor for the last couple of days.”

He estimated that 85 to 90 percent of the flight test’s objectives would end up being met. But he said assessing the post-flight data would probably take the team “deep into January.”

One priority will be to trace the root cause of the timing system glitch, which spoiled Calypso’s ascent to orbit about a half-hour after Friday’s launch from Florida.

Mission managers said the craft’s software used an incorrect time stamp for a sequence of automated maneuvers during ascent. The time stamp, which Boeing’s Chilton said was 11 hours off, was pulled out of data stored on the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Engineers were still trying to figure out what went wrong.

The glitch caused Calypso to miss out on firing its maneuvering engines for a key orbital insertion burn. Instead, it repeatedly fired the smaller thrusters in its reaction control system.

After some communication snags, ground controllers were able to upload corrected instructions and get the spacecraft into a stable, albeit lower, orbit. But by that time, so much fuel had been expended that NASA and Boeing decided they couldn’t risk a space station rendezvous.

Chilton said the timing issue didn’t show up in pre-launch simulations. “We are surprised that a very large body of integrated tests didn’t surface this,” he said on Saturday. But he vowed that “we’re going to go fix it.”

NASA’s deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich, said it’s still possible that the next test flight will carry crew as planned.

“We’ll have to sit down and talk about what we do for the Crewed Flight Test,” Stich said. “To me, there’s good data out there to suggest that once we go through it, maybe it’s acceptable to go, next step, fly the Crewed Flight Test.”

NASA is paying Boeing and SpaceX billions of dollars to develop space taxis that can transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station — filling a U.S. spacecraft gap that’s existed ever since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011. In the interim, NASA has had to pay the Russians tens of millions of dollars per seat for rides on Soyuz spacecraft.

Boeing is preparing a different Starliner spacecraft for the Crewed Flight Test. Calypso will be refurbished for what’s expected to be the second crewed flight, providing a ride to the space station for Williams, NASA crewmate Josh Cassada and two spacefliers to be named later.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is continuing work on its Crew Dragon space taxi. It’s scheduled to put a Crew Dragon through an in-flight abort test in January. Like Boeing, SpaceX aims to start flying astronauts next year.

This is an updated version of a report first published at 6:08 a.m. PT Dec. 22.