Boeing capsule returns from space station after uncrewed test flight

The Boeing crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, performing a rehearsal test flight before NASA astronauts boarded.

It was a quick comeback: 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 buckled.

Thruster failures and cooling system snags aside, Starliner appeared to land its high-stakes shakedown cruise, 2½ years after its failed first try. Flight controllers in Houston cheered and applauded the spot-on landing.

NASA astronauts will then strap in for a trip to the space station. The space agency has long wanted two competing American companies to transport astronauts, which has given it added reassurance as it has greatly reduced its reliance on Russia for trips to and from the space station.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts since 2020 and even tourists. Her crew capsules crash off the coast of Florida; The Boeing Starliner returns to the US Army’s vast White Sands missile range in New Mexico.

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

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

The station’s astronauts tested Starliner’s communications and computer systems during its 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 remained behind, to be picked up by the Starliner’s first crew.

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

Starliner’s test dummy was along the ride – Rosie the Rocketeer, a take-off on Rosie the Riveter from WWII.

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