Washington (AFP)

Boeing's space capsule, Starliner, unmanned on board, landed safely on a desert in the western United States on Sunday after shortening its test mission in orbit, during which it should have docked at the International Space Station (ISS).

The partial failure of the mission is a setback for the giant of the aerospace industry, whose reputation is tarnished by two accidents of its star aircraft 737 MAX, and for NASA, which counts on this vehicle to send its astronauts in 2020 in the ISS in order to break dependence on Russia, the only country since 2011 to operate manned spacecraft, the Soyuz.

The American space agency must now decide if the return without damage of the capsule will be enough to prove that it is a safe vehicle to place its crews there. NASA boss Jim Bridenstine hasn't ruled out anything.

Starliner landed at night on the base of White Sands, a piece of army desert in New Mexico, at 05.58 (12.58 GMT). Its descent, broadcast live by infrared cameras, was slowed by three large parachutes, and the landing cushioned by large airbags.

"The vehicle appears to be in fantastic condition," reported recovery teams, according to Steve Siceloff of Boeing.

In the control rooms of Houston, engineers and senior officials from NASA and Boeing welcomed each other, apparently relieved that the mission, after a failed start, then went well.

The capsule was launched Friday from Cape Canaveral, Florida on the Atlantic coast, by an Atlas V rocket, built by the United Launch Alliance.

Shortly after the separation of the rocket, Starliner did not ignite its thrusters as planned, and it was therefore not placed on the right trajectory to gain altitude and catch up with the ISS, which circles the Earth at 28,000 km / h, at around 400 km altitude.

The problem was caused by the elapsed time counter, which displayed an erroneous time and caused the capsule to believe that it was later in the mission. Acting automatically, she attempted to correct her position and spent too much fuel in the maneuver, preventing the mission from continuing.

Boeing and NASA have therefore decided to bring it back prematurely, and take advantage of the 48 hours in orbit to test as many systems as possible, such as thrusters, batteries, or the system that heats and cools the interior of the capsule. , designed to transport four astronauts.

The apparently successful return should comfort NASA if it decides to maintain the schedule for a first manned Starliner flight in early 2020, with Boeing test astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke.

- SpaceX, the other taxi -

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is under pressure to resume human space flights launched from the United States after almost nine years of interruption, not to mention the Artemis program to return to the Moon in 2024, a date deemed unrealistic by many experts.

The last confirmed flight of an American astronaut is scheduled for April 2020 aboard a Soyuz rocket. NASA is negotiating for additional tickets in the fall of 2020 and 2021 because the United States cannot imagine having no more astronauts on the ISS.

Since Friday, Jim Bridenstine has chosen to highlight what had worked well in the current mission: the Nasa-Boeing coordination, the good health of the vehicle, and the fact that if astronauts had been on board, they would always have been security.

"A lot has gone well today. This is why we are testing," he said when opening the first press conference after the problem on Friday.

Whatever happens with Boeing, rival company SpaceX has developed its own capsule for NASA, Crew Dragon. She made a round trip to the ISS last March, and is currently finalizing parachute tests, with the aim of obtaining NASA approval and making her first manned flight at the start of the year.

© 2019 AFP