Boeing’s Starliner capsule arrived at the International Space Station Friday night (May 20), marking a milestone for the space giant’s quest to transport NASA astronauts to and from orbit.
Go Starliner aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from United Launch Alliance Thursday evening (May 19), as it embarked on a crucial unmanned mission to the station called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). After about 22 hours, starliner She began focusing on the International Space Station, performing a series of fly-bys, approaches, and retreats designed to showcase her rendezvous pieces.
This tropical dance culminated at 8:28 PM EDT (0028 GMT May 21) today when the Starliner finally tied up with the station, docking at the forward-facing harbor of its Harmony Node. The Boeing The spacecraft and the station were sailing about 270 miles above the southern Indian Ocean as they met in orbit.
“The Starliner looks beautiful on the front of the space station,” NASA astronaut Robert Haines radioed to Mission Control from the station after docking.
The docking occurred more than an hour later than planned.
NASA and Boeing initially intended to dock the Starliner to the station at 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT), but initially delayed to wait for better lighting and communications conditions, then delayed it again to reset NASA’s space capsule docking system, or NDS, when they detect a small anomaly. This reset worked and the Starliner connected seamlessly to its docking port.
“The past few hours have been painful, you know, I saw that spacecraft out of reach [the] “This is a really important demonstration mission and it was important for us to get that experimental data and get to learn from every step along the way, and really put the car in its stride,” Kathy Luders, associate director of space operations at the International Space Agency, told reporters after docking. .
Sometimes, Lueders added, “that flight takes a little longer,” but for now, seeing “that craft now docked at the International Space Station is just an extraordinary phenomenon.”
For Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, the Starliner’s docking success was the ultimate Christmas gift. He turned 57, with the NASA and Boeing teams celebrating a little cake before the Starliner reached the space station.
“You know, I had an incredible 24 hours,” Stitch said of watching the Starliner launch and finally reach the space station, even if it was more than an hour late. “I had to wait a little longer for my birthday present. It was worth the wait.”
Starliner’s long way to the International Space Station
It was a historic moment for Boeing, which Signed a multi-billion dollar NASA contract in 2014 To transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station using Starliner. Today’s docking showed that the capsule could indeed make its way into the orbiting laboratory — something it had failed to do once before.
“It was really something to watch,” Mark Naby, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the company’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a conference call after the docking. “It was really exciting to watch that car sit there for a little while until it was time to come in.”
The original OFT, which launched in December 2019, ended prematurely after Starliner was exposed to A series of software glitches They are stranded in orbit too low to allow rendezvous to the International Space Station. The OFT-2 was originally supposed to take off last summer, but pre-operational checks revealed that 13 of the 24 valves are 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 hasn’t gone very smoothly so far either. One of Starliner’s thrusters failed during its critical orbital entry, burning up 31 minutes after liftoff, NASA and Boeing officials said during a post-launch press conference Thursday night.
Backup ran for this drive to compensate but failed before completing the burn. Then a triple backup booster took off, and the Starliner was able to reach the correct orbit for the International Space Station’s rendezvous. NASA officials said the backup-to-backup engine was also fine during the Starliner’s post-engine burn Thursday night.
“The system was designed to be redundant, and it was working as it was supposed to. Now the team is working to figure out why these anomalies occur,” said Mark Naby, Vice President and Program Director at Boeing Commercial Crew ProgramHe said during the press conference.
In an emailed statement this afternoon, Boeing representatives said that 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 aborting maneuvers and testing its vision-based system, Photoelectric Sensor Assembly (VESTA), which it used to lock 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 makes its way toward the station,” Boeing representatives said in the statement. “The guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) systems are operating nominally. Flight programs are implemented as designed. Power generation is a positive.”
The statement added that the team identified some unexpected behavior in the “thermocooling loop”, but Starliner was able to maintain a constant temperature.
Starliner way forward
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 achieve its remaining milestones, it may be allowed to fly NASA astronauts to the station, possibly before the end of the year.
“Today represents a great milestone, providing additional commercial access to low Earth orbit, supporting the International Space Station and enabling NASA’s goal of returning humans to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars,” NASA astronaut Haynes told Mission Control from the station as he congratulated the Boeing team. The great achievements in human spaceflight have long been remembered in history. Today will be no different.
And speaking of OFT-2 milestones – the next big stage to watch is the hatches open between Starliner and the International Space Station, after which astronauts currently living in the orbiting lab can float aboard the newcomer. It is due to 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 to hold a commercial crew contract for NASA; The agency signed a similar deal with SpaceX In 2014. Elon Musk has already operated the astronaut taxi service, launching four operational manned missions to the International Space Station for NASA so far. One of the Crew Dragons is currently docked at the station after moving its crew to the station in April.
“Our goal was to have two redundant crew transportation systems,” Stitch said of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, adding that it eventually became a reality when the Starliner parked to the station where the Dragon crew was already parked.
“It was just a great day to see that,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:51 PM EDT to include new comments from NASA’s press conference following the successful docking of OFT-2 at Starliner.
Mike Wall is the author of “AbroadBook (Great Grand Publishing House, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book on the search for extraterrestrials. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed. Follow us on Twitter Tweet embed or on Facebook.