Boeing’s Starliner capsule arrived at the International Space Station Friday night (May 20), marking a milestone in the space giant’s mission to transport NASA astronauts to and from orbit.
Go Starliner aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket Thursday night (May 19), as it embarked on a critical unmanned mission to a station called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). About 22 hours later, the Ela spacecraft began to focus on the International Space Station, making a series of flybys, routes and retreats designed to show off the pieces of the standoff.
This tropical dance climaxed at 8:28 PM EST (0028 GMT May 21) today, when the Starliner finally docked at the station, docking at the forward-facing harbor at Harmony Node. The spacecraft and the Boeing station were sailing 270 miles above the southern Indian Ocean when they met in orbit.
NASA astronaut Robert Haines radioed to Mission Control at the station after docking: “The Starliner looks beautiful in front of the space station.”
Live updates: Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2 mission to the International Space Station
Related: Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 test flight in stunning photos
Docking took place more than an hour later than planned.
NASA and Boeing initially intended to dock the Starliner at the station at 19:10 EDT (2310 GMT), but initially delayed waiting for better lighting and communication conditions, then delayed again to reset NASA’s space capsule docking system, or NDS, when detecting a small abnormality. This reset worked and the Starliner seamlessly connected to its docking port.
However, it was a historic moment for Boeing when it signed a multi-billion dollar contract with NASA in 2014 to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station using the Starliner. Today’s docking showed that the capsule can indeed enter the orbiting laboratory – something that has failed once before.
The original OFT version, which launched in December 2019, ended prematurely after Starliner experienced a series of software glitches. OFT-2 was originally supposed to take off last summer, but pre-operational checks revealed that 13 of the 24 valves were oxidized in the Starliner’s propulsion system. We were stuck. It took about eight months to identify and treat the cause of the problem.
OFT-2 has not performed well so far. One of Starliner’s thrusters failed during its critical orbital entry, NASA and Boeing officials said during a post-launch press conference Thursday night, igniting 31 minutes after liftoff.
This drive was backed up to compensate, but failed before writing was completed. Then the triple backup booster took off, and the Starliner was able to reach the correct orbit to rendezvous with the International Space Station. The backup-to-backup engine was also fine as the post-Starliner engine burned Thursday night, NASA officials said.
“The system was designed to be redundant and was working as it should. The team is now working to find out why these anomalies are occurring,” Mark Naby, vice president and program manager for Boeing Commercial Crew Program, said during the press conference.
In a statement emailed this afternoon, Boeing representatives said mission team members have now determined that the two missile failures were caused by low chamber pressure. The statement said the propulsion system “operates normally during all propulsion system demonstrations and, with overwork, does not pose a risk to the rest of the flight tests.”
The statement added that Starliner won a series of experiments before it began approaching the International Space Station, including failed maneuvers and testing of its vision-based system, the Photoelectric Sensor Assembly (VESTA), which it used to shut down the orbital laboratory.
“Flight control teams continue to learn more about the vehicle and how it operates in space, and continue to do well as it heads to the station,” Boeing representatives said in the statement. “The guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) systems operate symbolically. Flight programs are executed as designed. Power generation is an added advantage.”
The statement added that the team identified some unexpected behavior in the “thermocooling cycle”, but Starliner was able to maintain a constant temperature.
The Starliner is now safely on the International Space Station, where it will remain for four or five days before departing for a landing in the western United States. If the capsule can reach its remaining milestones, it could bring NASA astronauts to the station, possibly before the end of the year.
NASA astronaut Haynes told Mission Control from the station while congratulating the Boeing team. History long remembers the great achievements of human spaceflight. Today will not be any different
And speaking of OFT-2 milestones – the next big stage to look for is the hatches open between the Starliner and the International Space Station, after which astronauts currently living in the orbiting lab can float aboard the newcomer. It should happen around 11:45 AM ET (1545 GMT) on Saturday (May 21). You can watch it live on Space.com, courtesy of NASA; Coverage will begin at 11:30 AM ET (1530 GMT).
Boeing isn’t the only company holding a commercial crew contract for NASA; The agency signed a similar agreement with SpaceX In 2014. Elon Musk has already operated the astronaut taxi service, having so far launched four operational manned missions to NASA’s International Space Station.
Mike Wall is the author of “out of the countryBook (Great Grand Publishing House, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book on the search for extraterrestrials. Follow him on Twitter Embedded Tweet. Follow us on Twitter Embedded Tweet or in Facebook.