Boeing has landed its crew capsule in the New Mexico desert after an aborted flight to the International Space Station.
The move threatened to derail the company’s effort to launch astronauts for Nasa next year.
The Starliner descended into the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range, ending a two-day demo that should have lasted more than a week.
All three main parachutes popped open and airbags also inflated around the spacecraft to ease the impact.
“Congratulations, Starliner,” said Mission Control, calling it a successful touchdown.
A test dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer — after Rosie the Riveter from the Second World War – rode in the commander’s seat. Also returning were holiday presents, clothes and food that should have been delivered to the space station crew.
After seeing this first test flight cut short and the space station docking cancelled because of an improperly set clock on the capsule, Boeing employees were relieved to get the Starliner back.
It was the first US capsule designed for astronauts to return from orbit and land on the ground.
Nasa’s early crew capsules all had splashdowns. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which made its orbital debut last winter, also aims for the ocean at mission’s end.
The astronauts assigned to the first Starliner crew – two from Nasa and one from Boeing – were part of the welcoming committee in the bitter cold.
The capsule’s first trip to space began with a smooth rocket ride from Cape Canaveral on Friday. But barely half an hour into the flight, it failed to fire its thrusters to give chase to the space station and ended up in the wrong orbit.
The problem was with the Starliner’s internal clock – it did not sync up with the Atlas V rocket, throwing off the capsule’s timing.
The capsule burned so much fuel trying to orient itself in orbit that there was not enough left for a space station rendezvous. Flight controllers tried to correct the problem, but between the spacecraft’s position and a gap in communications, their signals did not get through. They later managed to reset the clock.
Boeing is still trying to figure out how the timing error occurred. The mission lasted nearly 50 hours and included 33 orbits around the Earth.
Nasa is uncertain whether it will demand another test flight from Boeing – to include a space station visit – before putting its astronauts on board.
Boeing had been shooting for its first astronaut mission in the first half of 2020. This capsule is supposed to be recycled for the second flight with crew.