Starliner lands in New Mexico

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Updated 12:15 p.m. Eastern with comments from post-landing press conference.

WASHINGTON — Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft landed safely in New Mexico in the early morning hours Dec. 22, wrapping up an uncrewed test flight cut short by a timer glitch.

Starliner landed at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 7:58 a.m. Eastern, 35 minutes after performing a deorbit burn using its thrusters. The spacecraft “hit the bullseye” at the landing site, Boeing and NASA reported on a NASA TV broadcast of the landing.

The spacecraft’s reentry and landing appeared to go as planned, including the deployment of the spacecraft’s drogue and main parachutes. During a pad abort test at White Sands in November, one of three main parachutes failed to deploy because it was not properly rigged, but Boeing said they had identified the problem and ensured that the parachute on this spacecraft was properly set up.

“The landing looked exactly like we had in the simulations,” Boeing engineer Jim May said during the NASA TV broadcast. “A nice, soft landing.”

The landing brought an early end to a mission that had been scheduled to last more than a week. Original plans called for the Starliner to dock with the International Space Station Dec. 21 and remain there until shortly after midnight Eastern Dec. 28, undocking and landing at White Sands several hours later.

Starliner after landing
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner after a successful landing at White Sands, New Mexico. Credit: NASA

Those plans changed, though, when the spacecraft encountered a problem with its mission elapsed timer shortly after it separated from the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas 5 that launched it. The timer was not properly set, causing it to fire its attitude control thrusters at the wrong time and consuming too much propellant to permit an approach to the station.

Despite the lack of an ISS approach and docking, NASA and Boeing officials played up the mission’s other accomplishments in a briefing two hours after the landing. “A lot of things went right,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. With the successful landing, “a whole lot more things did go right, went very, very well.”

“Return is something you can’t really test. You’ve got to put your heat shield on go through the heat regime,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for Boeing’s space and launch division, said at that briefing. “Today, it couldn’t really have gone any better.”

He emphasized the on-target landing at White Sands and the good condition of the spacecraft after touchdown. “From an overall perspective, we are just as pleased as we could be with the design.”

Chilton estimated that the mission has achieved in the “low 60%” of overall flight test objectives so far based on available data. Once all the data from the spacecraft is retrieved and analyzed, he said that success rate could reach 85–90%.

Questions, though, continue to swirl about the problem with the mission elapsed timer. Chilton said in a Dec. 21 that Starliner initializes that timer prior to launch using data from the Atlas 5, but that the spacecraft apparently “reached in and grabbed the wrong coefficient” prior to launch. He said in the Dec. 22 briefing that the timer was off by 11 hours.

Boeing and NASA tried to downplay the timer issue, noting the success of other aspects of the mission, including the critical launch and landing phases. “We had a little issue with the timer in the beginning, which caused to go into a different path in the mission,” said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, during the post-landing briefing. “Sometimes, when you head down these different paths, you learn more.”

“We have a solid understanding of the challenge that we had, and why it occurred,” Bridenstine added. “It is not something that is going to prevent us from moving forward quickly. We can still move forward quickly. We can get it fixed.”

Earlier in the briefing, though, Bridenstine suggested that the timer problem might prompt a more thorough review of the overall flight software on Starliner. “That gives us reason to think we need to go back and look at a lot of different things,” he said.

Neither the agency nor the company, though, would rule out going ahead directly to the Crew Flight Test mission, with three astronauts on board, despite not meeting all of the objectives of this Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission.

“We need to take a little bit of time to look through all the data and see how the vehicle performed in all phases,” Stich said. “To me, there’s good data out there that suggests that, once we go through it, maybe it’s acceptable to go, as the next step, the Crew Flight Test.”

During the briefing, reporters noted that Boeing’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract with NASA does appear to require that the uncrewed flight test dock with the ISS. “The OFT shall include a [commercial crew transportation system] that validates end-to-end connectivity, [launch vehicle] and CST-100 integration, launch and flight operations, automated rendezvous and proximity operations, and docking with the ISS, assuming ISS approval,” it states.

NASA suggested that provision could be amended. “There’s also a difference between what is a NASA requirement and what is a contractual requirement for this particular flight test,” Bridenstine said. “The NASA requirement might not be the same as the contractual requirement for this particular flight test.”

If NASA does go ahead and fly the Crew Flight Test mission next, the Starliner that just landed, formally known as spacecraft 3, will be refurbished for the first operational, or post-certification, mission. One of the astronauts who will fly that mission, Suni Williams, said in a NASA TV interview after the landing that the spacecraft would be renamed “Calypso” in honor of the ship used by famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

“In a little homage to other explorers and the ships that they rode on, I think we’re going to call it Calypso,” she said. “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.”

At the post-landing briefing, both Bridenstine and Chilton seemed a little surprised by the name. “This is commercial crew, so it’s probably going to be up to our commercial partners to name the capsules,” Bridenstine said. “I would imagine that if NASA weighed in and we wanted to name it something, Boeing would probably follow suit, but we haven’t done that in this case.”

“It’s hard to resist the allure of the commander of your first revenue service flight picking her name, so I’m sure we’ll be chatting with Suni,” Chilton said. “Cool name, by the way.”