Miami, May 25 (EFE).- The Boeing Starliner space capsule separated successfully from the International Space Station on Wednesday and began its return journey to Earth, the last phase of its uncrewed six-day mission aimed at evaluating its capabilities.
As previously planned, the spacecraft autonomously undocked from the ISS at 2:36 pm US Eastern time and a little over four hours later after reentry is scheduled to parachute to earth at the White Sands military base in New Mexico.
Ground control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston confirmed the undocking just moments after the Starliner separated from the ISS and began its maneuvers to get into the proper orbital trajectory to return to terra firma.
On its homeward flight, the Starliner is carrying 270 kilograms (600 pounds) of cargo, including reusable oxygen and nitrogen tanks that provide breathable air to the ISS crewmembers, tanks that will be refilled and used on future space flights.
The Starliner’s hatch was closed on Tuesday in preparation for the detachment on Wednesday, and once it lands the Orbital Flight Test-2 mission mounted by NASA and Boeing will come to an end, although data gathered on the craft’s orbital capabilities will be extensively analyzed by experts over the coming weeks and months.
ISS crewmember Bob Hines monitored the departure and radioed to NASA: “We’re a little sad to see her go, but it looks like a successful mission so far. Godspeed, Starliner,” having said at a welcoming ceremony for the arriving craft last Saturday that the mission is another step on the road to commercial orbital flights, returning to the Moon and – ultimately – traveling to Mars.
The aerospace firm will have to obtain NASA certification to be able to transport astronauts to and from the ISS, as the private firm SpaceX has now done four times using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule.
No significant incidents have been registered so far during the OFT-2 mission except on May 19, some 30 minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, when two of the capsule’s engines failed during the orbital insertion process, although the craft reached and docked with the ISS with no further problem about 24 hours later.
That incident, which triggered the operation of a backup engine, potentially will lengthen the analysis NASA will make before it certifies the craft for future operations and thus may delay the first crewed flight to the ISS, tentatively planned for late this year.
Initially, the mission was scheduled for August 2021 but Boeing decided to postpone it after detecting problems caused by the entry of humidity into some of the spacecraft’s propulsion system valves.
In December 2019, after a successful liftoff, a first attempt to send the Starliner to the ISS failed due to technical problems the prevented it from attaining the proper orbit.