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Boeing's Starliner Spacecraft Returns to Earth After the Successful Test Flight

Issue 12 - 2022
Boeing's Starliner Spacecraft Returns to Earth After the Successful Test Flight

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft made a safe return from its six-day test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) and back. The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launched on May 19, 2022, as part of Boeing's Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission and successfully docked with the ISS on May 21, 2022. It stayed at the ISS for four days before undocking and landing at the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range on May 25, 2022.

The Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is Starliner's second uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) was a repeat of Boeing's unsuccessful first Orbital Flight Test (OFT-1) of its Starliner spacecraft. OFT-2 was designed to show that Starliner is ready to carry astronauts to and from orbit for NASA, which signed a contract with Boeing for such services back in 2014.

Following liftoff, Starliner successfully entered Earth’s orbit, performed a series of demonstrations of its capabilities, and docked with the orbital outpost 26 hours after launch. The Expedition 67 crew aboard the station opened hatches and entered the capsule for the first time, inspecting the spacecraft and verifying integration with power and communications station systems for longer stays in the future. The station crew also unloaded 500 pounds of cargo delivered by Starliner and sent 600 pounds of cargo back to Earth.

The Starliner's landing occurred about four hours after undocking from its port at the station. The spacecraft gradually lowered its altitude with a deorbit burn as it approached Earth's atmosphere and then lit its thrusters before deploying parachutes to slow its descent. Three parachutes slowed the capsule to a gentle landing speed. It touched down onto its airbags in a remote area of the New Mexican desert, called White Sands, which has long been the site of aerospace and weapons tests.

Although the spacecraft had a glitch during its ascent, with two maneuvering thrusters shutting down due to pressure problems, the mission completed one of its most important test objectives, reaching the ISS and docking successfully. OFT-2 marks a critical development milestone in Boeing's development of Starliner, which has run into several obstacles and delays over the past three years.

The Starliner program's first Orbital Flight Test (OFT-1) in December 2019 failed to reach the station. Conducted by Boeing as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, the mission was planned to be an eight-day test flight. OFT-1 was launched on December 20, 2019; however, a software programming error with the spacecraft's Mission Elapsed Time (MET) clock caused the spacecraft to burn through much of its propellant into an incorrect orbit, forcing the test light cut short and preventing a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). The mission was reduced to just two days, with the capsule safely landing at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico on December 22, 2019.

Boeing retrieved the spacecraft from the landing site and will transport it back to the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After NASA and Boeing review processes data from this test flight, teams will continue plans for Starliner and its expected next mission, the Crew Flight Test (CFT), to the space station.

Boeing Starliner

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner (CST-Crew Space Transportation) is a partially reusable spacecraft designed to transport crew to the International Space Station (ISS) and other low-Earth-orbit destinations. It is manufactured by Boeing for its participation in NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The spacecraft consists of a reusable crew module and an expendable service module. The spacecraft weighs 13 tons and measures 4.56 meters (15.0 ft) in diameter and 5.1 meters (17.0 ft) in height.

It is slightly larger than the Apollo command module and SpaceX Dragon 2 and smaller than the Orion capsule. The Boeing Starliner holds a crew of up to seven people and is designed to be able to remain docked to ISS for up to seven months with the reusability of up to ten missions. It is designed to be compatible with the Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9, and Vulcan Centaur launch vehicles.

After several rounds of competitive development contracts within the Commercial Crew Program starting in 2010, NASA selected the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract.

Commercial Crew Program (CCP)

Development of the Commercial Crew Program began in 2011. By investing in multiple American companies that are designing and developing transportation capabilities to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station, NASA aims to establish safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to space. To achieve its goals, NASA used Space Act Agreements to partner with domestic companies capable of contributing to the development of a U.S. human spaceflight capability.

Throughout the process, NASA awarded more than $8.2 billion in Space Act Agreements (SAAs) and contracts under two Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) phases, the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, Certification Products Contract (CPC), and Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). 

During the CCDev1 phase, NASA awarded a total of $50 million to five companies to stimulate efforts within the private sector to aid in developing and demonstrating safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew transportation and capabilities. The second round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev2) kicked off in April of 2011 when NASA awarded nearly $270 million to four companies to further develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation capabilities. Winners of CCDev2 were Blue Origin (US$ 22 million), Boeing (US$ 92.3 million), SpaceX (US$ 75 million), and Sierra Nevada (US$ 80 million). 

NASA later funded an additional US$ 20.6 million to Boeing and US$ 25.6 million to Sierra Nevada Corporation by exercising optional, pre-negotiated milestones, which were part of their original Space Act Agreements, to accelerate development. On December 10, 2012, NASA selected three companies and awarded nearly $30 million under the CPC contracts. In September 2014, NASA finally awarded two fixed-price (US$6.8 billion in total) CCtCap contracts to two companies (Boeing - $4.2 billion, SpaceX - $2.6 billion) following an open competition.


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