The mission began Thursday night with a launch from Florida, and the Starliner — designed to carry astronauts but flying without people to perform this test — docked with the International Space Station Friday night at 8:28 p.m. ET. The docking occurred about an hour later than expected as the ground crews worked on some issues, including a software issue that distorted graphics, such as an out-aligned GPS map. There were also issues with the sensors and some docking components not moving properly at first.
The capsule has a snap ring that appears when approaching the door and is used as a lock. to the International Space Station. During the first docking attempt, some components did not enter the correct configuration. The individual teams had to try the pop-up process again to get everything in the right place. There was also a minor problem with the Starliner’s cooling circuits, which are part of the system that regulates the spacecraft’s temperature.
All of these issues had to be analyzed or fixed in time so the Starliner could move on, and the pairing eventually took off without too much trouble.
“It was really exciting to see that car parked for a while until it’s time to ride,” Mark Naby, director of Boeing’s Starliner program, told reporters Friday night.
However, several other problems arose with the spacecraft’s thrusters, which maneuver and steer the spacecraft as it navigates through space. Two of these pulsations closed prematurely shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit. Some other drivetrains encountered problems later.
Despite the setbacks, the spacecraft performed “beautifully,” according to Steve Stitch, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which oversees SpaceX’s Starliner and Crew Dragon program.
“Of course this is a test flight, and since those who watched the flight probably all day, I saw that we were learning along the way, which is very exciting,” Stitch said at a Friday evening news conference.
NASA and Boeing officials said problems with thrusters aren’t a big concern because the Starliner has “too many” backups built in, Stitch said. There are 48 of these thrusters on the vehicle, and the computers on board the capsule may choose to use one thruster over another if they detect something a little further away.
While Boeing wants to understand why the thrust engines are not performing as planned, according to Nappi, that may not be the case.
“We may never know the real reason behind this,” he said.
Engineers have reduced driving problems to “six or seven” possible causes, with three likely. Focusing on the exact problem requires engineers to see the thrusters in person, which they can’t because the thrusters are attached to the service module — the part that would be scrapped and left to burn up in the atmosphere before the Starliner could. Controlled return to Earth.
This is expected to happen in the next few days. The Starliner will blast off from the International Space Station, maneuver its way home, and then use its engines to return to the thickest part of Earth’s atmosphere before parachuting into the New Mexico desert.
If all goes well, it would be a huge win for Boeing, which came after years of delays and turmoil in the development of the Starliner.
The spacecraft’s first attempt to complete the 2019 orbital test mission from space prematurely, without completing a docking at the International Space Station, had to be repeated due to software issues. A second attempt to launch the Starliner to the International Space Station in August last year was called off after pre-flight checks discovered problems with the main valves that had failed.
If this mission is completed safely, Boeing’s Starliner could release astronauts by the end of 2022.
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