The mission began Thursday night with the Florida launch, and the Starliner — designed to carry astronauts but flying without people for 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 causing the graphics to skew, sort of like an out-of-aligned GPS map. There were also issues with the sensors and some docking components that weren’t moving properly at first.
The capsule contains a docking ring that pops up as it approaches its port and is used as a latch to the International Space Station. During the first attempt at docking, some components did not go into the correct configuration. The ground teams had to try the pop-up process again to get everything in the right place. There was also a small problem with the Starliner’s cooling loops, 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 docking eventually took off without much problem.
“It was really exciting to watch that car sit there for a while until it was time to come in,” Mark Naby, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, told reporters Friday night.
However, many other issues loomed with the spacecraft’s thrusters, which maneuver and steer that craft as it sails through space. Two of those thrusts closed prematurely shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit. A couple of other thrusters later had problems.
Despite the setbacks, the spacecraft has been performing “beautifully,” according to Steve Stitch, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which oversees Starliner as well as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program.
“Of course this is a test flight, and as those who have watched the flight probably all day, I saw that we were learning along the way, which is very exciting,” Stich said on a Friday night press call.
NASA and Boeing officials said thruster issues are not a major concern because Starliner has “a lot” of backups built in, Stitch said. There are 48 such thrusters on the vehicle, and the computers on board the capsule can choose to use one thruster over another if they detect anything a little further away.
Although Boeing wants to understand why the thrusters are not working as planned, according to Nappi, it may not.
“We may never know the real reason behind this,” he said.
Engineers have narrowed down the driving issues to “six or seven” possible causes, with three seeming likely. Focusing on the exact problem would require engineers to see the thrusters in person, which cannot happen because the thrusters are attached to the service module — a part that would be discarded and left to burn up in the atmosphere before Starliner made it. 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 massive win for Boeing, which came after years of delays and development disruptions with the Starliner.
The spacecraft’s first attempt to complete an orbital test mission in 2019 from space had to be prematurely replayed, without completing a docking at the International Space Station, 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 become stuck.
If this mission is completed safely, Boeing’s Starliner could release astronauts by the end of 2022.