Boeing's Starliner spacecraft landed softly in the New Mexico desert Sunday morning, successfully finishing a flawed test mission that went awry shortly after the capsule reached space.
Floating under three parachutes, the spacecraft, which was carrying no astronauts, touched down in the predawn darkness shortly before 7:58 a.m. Eastern Time at the White Sands Missile Range.
Boeing and NASA celebrated the return of Starliner as a triumph, the first time an American spacecraft built to send humans to orbit touched down on land instead of in the ocean.
"There's no point of sending people to space if you can't bring them home safely," Boeing spokesman Josh Barrett said during a broadcast.
"Flawless flight back to Earth," Steve Siceloff, a Boeing spokesman said on the broadcast. "Good landing."
The successful denouement capped a mission that suffered a significant failure with the spacecraft's timing system that prevented it from performing its key test objective: reaching the International Space Station and docking with the flying laboratory in orbit at 17,500 mph.
NASA is relying on Boeing and SpaceX to design and build spacecraft capable of flying its astronauts to the space station. Before they undertake missions with NASA astronauts on board, both companies were to fly uncrewed missions to test how their capsules operate in space.
SpaceX completed a successful flight without astronauts on board in March. But a month later its Dragon spacecraft exploded during a test firing of its emergency abort system engines. It says it has since fixed that problem and is hoping to perform a test of the abort system in-flight next month.
Boeing's Starliner launched successfully early Friday morning on an Atlas V rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance from Cape Canaveral on Florida's Space Coast.
But when the spacecraft was released, a problem with its timing system caused the engines to not fire as expected. That put the spacecraft in the wrong orbit where it was between communications satellites. Because it was in the wrong location, its antennae were pointed in the wrong direction so controllers on the ground could not get the commands to the spacecraft in time, said Jim Chilton, Boeing's senior vice president of space and launch.
As the spacecraft struggled to put itself on the correct flight path it fired a series of thrusters that burned up fuel, and NASA and Boeing decided the spacecraft should not attempt to dock with the station.
Starliner had been scheduled to spend about a week attached to the space station but instead was forced to come home early. Early Sunday morning, Starliner fired its engines once again, this time to slow it down to reenter the atmosphere. The spacecraft slammed into the atmosphere at about 25 times the speed of sound. Its heat shield withstood 3,000-degree temperatures, as the spacecraft was engulfed in a fireball generated by high-speed friction with the increasingly dense atmosphere.
Nearing Earth, the spacecraft deployed its parachutes - another key test since the company had struggled with the system previously - and touched down softly.
Before the landing, Chilton said the company was optimistic but said re-entries and landings "are not for the faint of heart." The spacecraft was able to successfully perform a number of key tests, he said, that Boeing and NASA officials hope will help pave the way for a flight with crews on board.