Investing in Space

Boeing Starliner spacecraft lands after key NASA mission cut short by mishap

Key Points
  • Boeing completed the flight test of its Starliner spacecraft, cut short by a mishap during launch.
  • The mission ended after Starliner successfully reentered the atmosphere and landed in the New Mexico desert.
  • While Starliner did not reach the International Space Station, it was able to complete some objectives from the test flight.
  • This was "the first time an American-made, human-rated capsule has landed on land," NASA said.
Boeing's Starliner capsule landing under three main parachutes in New Mexico.
Boeing

Boeing successfully landed its Starliner capsule in the New Mexico desert early Sunday morning, ending a mission that was cut short by an issue with the spacecraft's autonomous flight system just after it launched on Friday.

Starliner passed smoothly through the intense process of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. The capsuled slowed down in just a few minutes from more than 25 times the speed of sound to land softly on the desert floor.

"A flawless flight back to Earth and a good landing," NASA said.

However, the mission did not achieve its ultimate goal of docking with the International Space Station and delivering supplies. As Starliner is built to carry as many as five people, this orbital flight test was to show NASA that Boeing's capsule could do so safely. There were no people on board the capsule for this test.

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Boeing's Starliner mission

The mission lasted just over two days in total. Boeing told press on Saturday that the company was able to still conduct tests of many parts of the spacecraft while in orbit, saying the vehicle's systems such as flight control and life support were all working well in orbit.

Boeing's autonomous flight control system fired at the wrong time shortly after launch, the company explained, putting Starliner in the wrong orbit. During the launch the spacecraft "reached in" to the rocket and "grabbed the wrong spot," Boeing said, resulting in Starliner's internal clock being set incorrectly.

Starliner passes a historic milestone

Boeing's Starliner capsule is moved into position on top of an Atlas V rocket before launch.
NASA | Cory Huston

This was the first time Starliner has gone through the full reentry and landing process. NASA said the preliminary results showed that astronauts on board Starliner would have had a smooth ride.

Additionally, the Boeing-built capsule became the first to make a landing on land, as all previous U.S. space capsules have landed in water.

"The first time an American-made, human-rated capsule has landed on land," NASA said.

NASA and Boeing say they will be collecting and analyzing an enormous amount of data from the flight test. While the following mission was supposed to be a flight with crew on board, NASA says it's too early to know when or if that will still happen next.