Boeing's Starliner Capsule that ran into immediate problems after take-off in its final un-crewed test flight now faces another test, the journey back to Earth. Upon re-entry, the capsule will face a speed 25 times faster than the speed of sound and its heat shield will have to somehow withstand 3,000-degree temperatures.
The Starliner capsule built by Boeing failed to enter the orbit of the International Space Station on Friday, informed the United States space agency NASA. This comes as an automated timer error prevented the spacecraft from reaching the orbit after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
This was an important test for Boeing as they are competing with SpaceX to revive NASA's human spaceflight capabilities. The unmanned test flight to the space station has already been carried out by SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule in March.
The capsule is scheduled to come back down at 7:57 am Eastern time on Sunday.
The Starliner's return is a week ahead of schedule given the fact that it did not manage to docs at the International Space Station. During a press conference on Saturday, officials from both Boeing and NASA expressed their belief that the Starliner will safely survive re-entry.
During the press conference, they added that the Starliner is an able vessel but re-entry and landing are significant challenges. The Starliner will have to make a complicated series of manoeuvres. In the past, Boeing has suffered problems with the parachute system. According to officials, the life support and navigation systems on the Starliner are working well and the solar arrays are even exceeding expectations.
Boeing along with SpaceX was provided with $4.2 billion and $2.5 billion in 2014 respectively to develop separate capsule systems capable of ferrying astronauts to the space station from American soil for the first time since the US Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011. The NASA had initially expected its first crewed flights on Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule in late 2017. Yet a slew of design and safety concerns for both vehicles have led to schedule delays.
(with inputs from agencies)