Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, making a repeat test flight in ato reach the International Space Station, finally caught up with its quarry Friday and after a few fits and starts, successfully docked in a major milestone for the long-delayed spacecraft.
Approaching from directly ahead of the lab complex, the unpiloted Starliner homed in on the space station using a high-tech robotic vision system, stopping along the way for position checks and to recycle its docking mechanism before gliding in for a link up at the lab’s forward port at 8:28 pm EDT.
While no astronauts were on board the Starliner, NASA and Boeing took advantage of the test flight to send up about 500 pounds of equipment and supplies along with “Rosie the Rocketeer,” an instrumented mannequin collecting data on the cabin environment real astronauts will experience during operational flights.
“Thank you to the entire ops team for some great work tonight,” station astronaut Robert Hines radioed flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center. “Great accomplishments in human spaceflight are long remembered by history. Today will be no different.”
“So to Starliner, its commander Rosie the Rocketeer, and all the men and women who poured their hearts and souls into this vehicle and this mission, welcome to the International Space Station,” Hines added.
With the Starliner’s arrival at the station, NASA’s post-shuttle drive for independent access to space for US and partner agency astronauts took on visible form with two commercial crew vehicles from two different vendors, SpaceX and Boeing, docked to the lab at the same time .
“Starliner has proven safe, autonomous rendezvous and docking capability,” Jim Chilton, Boeing senior vice president for space launch, said in a statement. “We’re honored to join the fleet of commercial spacecraft capable of conducting transportation services to the space station for NASA.”
The station crew plans to open hatches to the Starliner around 11:45 am Saturday. After removing onboard supplies and equipment, the astronauts will load the capsule with experiment samples and other gear for return to waiting researchers and engineers.
If all goes well, the spacecraft will undock next Wednesday for a fiery plunge back to Earth and a parachute-assisted landing at White Sands, New Mexico.
Thursday’s long-awaited docking came more than an hour later than originally planned as flight controllers took extra time to verify the Starliner’s actual and apparent position as displayed by instrumentation and to retract and re-extend the capsule’s docking mechanism.
But the final push to docking went off without a hitch, to the relief of flight controllers and the astronauts, who stayed up past their bedtime to assist with the Starliner’s arrival.
“Great job today, it was a pleasure working with you,” mission control called. “With that, get some sleep and we’re looking forward to ingress tomorrow.”
“Absolute pleasure working with your team and the Boeing team,” astronaut Kjell Lindgren replied from the station. “Looking forward to tomorrow’s ingress.”
Assuming the rest of the flight goes well, Boeing hopes to ready a Starliner for launch before the end of the year carrying an astronaut crew to the space station on a piloted test flight.
After that, NASA plans to ferry crews to and from the lab using both SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules and Starliner ferry ships.
But first, Boeing needs to complete the unpiloted test flight.
from Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, the Starliner reached its planned initial orbit despite the premature shutdown of two thrusters, automatically switching to a backup jet in the same rocket pad to continue the critical maneuver.
At the same time, engineers were monitoring a spacecraft cooling problem that appeared to stabilize after the ship reached orbit. Overnight, however, the capsule’s two cooling loops ran into problems, but flight controllers were able to manually control their operation.
Otherwise, Boeing reported the Starliner’s guidance, navigation and control system was working normally, flight software was running smoothly, the ship had good communications through NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system and power levels were normal.
In addition, the spacecraft carried out a series of “demo” thruster firings, confirming the ship’s ability to hold position, execute rendezvous abort procedures and adjust its orbit, along with tests of its electronic vision system and its NASA docking mechanism.
As it was, the Starliner’s launching came nearly two-and-a-half years after Boeing first attempted an unpiloted test flight in December 2019.
During that flight, an embarrassing software error prevented thefrom loading the correct launch time, throwing off the timing of critical rocket firings. Flight controllers were unable to quickly resolve the problem because of an unrelated communications glitch. As a result, the spacecraft was unable to rendezvous and dock with the space station as planned.
Boeing opted to launch the Starliner on a second unpiloted test flight, at the company’s expense, butdiscovered during an August 2021 launch attempt, forced another lengthy delay for troubleshooting and repairs.
Despite the Starliner’s problem-plagued development, NASA is anxious to get the spacecraft certified for astronaut ferry flights. The goal is to provide redundancy and assured access to space in the event either company runs into a problem that might ground their spacecraft.
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to develop the Starliner while SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract to develop the company’s Crew Dragon.
Despite a smaller contract and vastly less spaceflight experience, SpaceX was able to beat Boeing to the punch, successfully launching an unpiloted Crew Dragon to the space station in 2019 and a piloted test flight with two NASA astronauts in 2020.
Since then, the California rocket builder has launched four operational crew rotation missions to the station for NASA, one commercial flight to the lab and a privately chartered flight to low-Earth orbit.