The Nasa and Boeing team behind the un-crewed Starliner space capsule that failed on Friday in its mission to dock with the international space station has expressed confidence that they can land the faulty spacecraft in the US desert on Sunday.
The Starliner is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere early Sunday, travelling from the south, over the Baja peninsula and Texas at 25 times the speed of sound before settling down at the US army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said independent teams had been brought in to review the spacecraft’s re-entry after it failed to reach the space station on Friday after a timing issue caused rockets to misfire.
By the time the Starliner was stabilized, in a low orbit, it no longer had enough fuel to boost itself to the station, where it was supposed to remain for a week.
“We’ve had teams looking at what happened with the timers, and anything that could affect us on re-entry. Over the last 24 hours looked very hard at that and we think we’re ready to go,” he said on Saturday.
Despite the failure to dock, the mission would still harvest “an enormous amount of data”, Bridenstine said, including information from an anthropomorphic model human packed with sensors called Rosie the Rockeeter.
The failure to complete the mission, with investigations so far focusing on Boeing computer code, represents another black eye for the company. Last week, Boeing suspended further production of its profitable 737 Max, the passenger airliner involved in two crashes that killed 346.
Friday’s Starliner test was considered a crucial rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts, as well as Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, Nasa’s other commercial launch provider.
But neither firm has yet launched a manned test of its newest capsule. Last April, a SpaceX capsule designed to carry astronauts exploded during a ground test.
The Starliner’s debut launch to orbit was a milestone test for Boeing, which is vying with SpaceX, owned by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, to revive Nasa’s human spaceflight capabilities.
SpaceX carried out a successful unmanned flight of its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station in March.
Still, Boeing said the data coming back from the Starliner suggested it was performing well.
“An astronaut on board could have provided a lot of options to mission control that could have put us in a position to get to the international space station,” Bridenstine added during a Saturday briefing.
Built to accommodate seven people, the white capsule with black and blue trim will typically carry four or five.
The latest flight was designed to test all systems on the $4bn capsule, from the vibrations and stresses of liftoff to touchdown. On Friday, Nasa emphasized that the capsules were designed to be safer than the old space shuttle.
“We’re talking about human spaceflight,” Bridenstine cautioned. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It never has been, and it’s never going to be.”