Boeing's Starliner safely returns to Earth after second test flight

It passed a critical test towards crewed flights to the ISS.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Boeing's Starliner has returned to Earth safely after docking with the International Space Station for the first time. The six-day Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 mission came to an end when the spacecraft landed at the US Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. It's the first American capsule to touch down on land instead of in the ocean. Starliner undocked from the ISS at 2:36PM ET and by 6:05PM, it was firing its thrusters to drop out of orbit.

The uncrewed Starliner, which took over 800 pounds of equipment to the ISS (including a Kerbal Space Program plush toy), brought back over 600 pounds of cargo. Among the returned items were reusable Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System tanks, which are used to provide air to those on the ISS. They'll be refilled and taken back to the space station later.

The spacecraft's first test flight took place in 2019. While it reached orbit, an automation system issue prevented thrusters from firing, meaning Starliner was unable to dock with the ISS. An attempt at a second test flight last year was scrapped because of a propulsion system valve problem, which led to a nine-month delay. In the interim, SpaceX conducted more crewed trips to the ISS than previously planned.

After assessing the data from this flight, Boeing will be able to start planning crewed flights that will take astronauts to the space station and bring them back to Earth. The New York Times says NASA will announce the astronauts who'll be flying on Starliner this summer, and the mission could take place before the year ends.

Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager, Boeing Commercial Crew Program, said:

"We have had an excellent flight test of a complex system that we expected to learn from along the way and we have With the completion of OFT-2, we will incorporate lessons learned and continue working to prepare for the crewed flight test and NASA certification. Thank you to the NASA and Boeing teammates who have put so much of themselves into Starliner."

Mariella Moon contributed to this story.