Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 Mission Ends Successfully

Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 Mission Ends Successfully

Boeing’s uncrewed Starliner commercial crew flight test landed at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico this evening, bringing Orbital Flight Test-2 to a close. Overall, the mission appears to have been a success despite a few glitches getting to orbit. Boeing and NASA will review all the data and decide how quickly the next step, a test flight with a crew, can take place and ultimately lead to the agency having two independent means of getting astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

Launched on May 19, the Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 docked with the International Space Station the next day and remained for five days, undocking this afternoon at 2:36 pm ET.

Starliner with its three navigatiion lights appears tiny against the black background of space and the curvature of the Earth at sunrise over Tasmania as it departs the ISS May 25, 2022. Screengrab.

Just over four hours later at 6:49 pm ET, Starliner OFT-2 landed at White Sands Space Harbor, part of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that splashes down in the water, Starliner lands on terra firma like Russia’s Soyuz although it uses airbags instead of a burst of thrusters to cushion the impact.

Boeing Starliner OFT-2 landing at White Sands Space Harbor, NM, May 25, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

During a post-landing press conference, NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich called it a “picture perfect” landing.

Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft resting on its airbags at White Sands Space Harbor, NM, surrounded by the recovery convoy, May 25, 2022. Screengrab.

OFT-2 is Boeing’s second try at this uncrewed test flight needed for certification to launch NASA astronauts. The first attempt in December 2019 did not go as planned. Boeing was ready to try again last August, but the launch was scrubbed hours before launch because 13 oxidizer isolation valves in the propulsion system would not open.

This time the launch went off on time, but getting to the ISS was not trouble-free. Two of 12 aft-facing Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control (OMAC) thrusters malfunctioned during orbital insertion and two of 28 Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters on the Service Module failed during approach to the ISS. During the post-landing press conference, Stich said another RCS thruster failed during landing. That one is on the Crew Module and a different design from those on the Service Module. NASA and Boeing downplayed those and other anomalies, but assessing what went wrong will be a focus for the Boeing-NASA team now.

Even before the launch, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) urged NASA and Boeing to take their time before the Crew Flight Test (CFT) that comes next, saying there is a “tremendous amount of work” to be done. Boeing already was questioning whether it needed to redesign the oxidizer isolation valves that didn’t open in August, although they all worked perfectly on this flight. The valves are between the propellant tanks and the thrusters.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft at White Sands Space Harbor, NM after completing the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission, May 25, 2022. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

For now, however, Boeing undoubtedly is savoring the moment of a flight that went much better than last time, two and a half years ago when a mis-set timer caused the spacecraft to burn so much propellant getting to orbit that it could not dock with the ISS and another software error, caught just in the nick of time, could have caused a catastrophic ending.

By contrast, at tonight’s post-landing press conference, Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Vice President and Program Manager for the Commercial Crew Program, enthused that “on a scale of 1 to 10, I think I’d give it a 15. This was incredible.” Stich seemed equally excited, seeing no showstoppers in the way of CFT.

Neither Stich nor Nappi was willing to commit to when CFT would launch, however. The target is the end of this year, but Stich said it “certainly” could move into the first quarter of 2023. This flight made progress, but “we just got to look at the rest of the pieces” including software updates for the crew flight displays, suits, seats, and a life support system test expected this summer, not to mention fitting it into all the other comings and goings at the ISS.  Nappi agreed with ASAP that there will be no rush and although they are working to get the CFT vehicle ready “we have just a little bit of time in front of us” to collect all the necessary information “and make sure we can support the schedule that we have currently laid out.”

Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are the two commercial crew systems developed through Public-Private Partnerships with NASA to provide two “dissimilar” U.S. space transportation systems to get crews back and forth to the ISS. Crew Dragon has been operational since 2020. Once Starliner is certified for operational missions, the two systems will provide redundancy for each other. If one is grounded for any reason, NASA still has the other. The point of developing them through PPPs instead of NASA building and owning the systems itself was not only to reduce development costs by using fixed price contracts, but to stimulate a new commercial space economy where NASA is just one of many customers for human space transportation services to low Earth orbit.


Note: This article was updated after the post-landing press conference.

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