Boeing’s Starliner capsule landed with the International Space Station on Friday, marking a crucial milestone in a high-stakes uncrewed test voyage as the US aerospace giant attempts to repair its reputation after previous disasters.
“A new route of access for personnel to the orbiting laboratory opens with the historic inaugural docking of the Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station,” said an announcer.
On Friday, a vital unmanned test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule was launched toward the International Space Station, following years of failures and false starts.
The spacecraft had some propulsion issues early on in its journey, with two engines in charge of orbital maneuver malfunctioning for unknown reasons – but NASA officials claimed the mission was still on track.
The Orbital Test Flight 2 mission launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6.54 p.m. on Thursday (8.45 a.m. Friday AEST), with the spaceship atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Its success will be critical in restoring Boeing’s tarnished reputation after the first bid, in 2019, failed to dock with the ISS due to software problems — one that caused the ship to consume too much fuel to reach its target, and another that could have destroyed it during re-entry.
Last August, a second attempt was planned, but Starliner was rolled back from the launch pad due to sticky valves that wouldn’t open properly, and the capsule was eventually sent back to the manufacturer for repairs.
“Overall, the spacecraft is doing pretty well,” stated senior NASA official Steve Sitch at a post-launch press briefing, but he also pointed out two anomalies that engineers are now investigating.
The first was that two of Starliner’s 12 orbital maneuver and attitude control thrusters had first fired but subsequently shut down, requiring a third to step in. The second problem was that the sublimator, which is responsible for cooling the spaceship, was slow to start.
NASA wants to qualify Starliner as a second “taxi” service for humans to the space station, a job that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has filled since its Dragon capsule successfully completed a test mission in 2020.
Both companies were awarded fixed-price contracts in 2014, shortly after the Space Shuttle program ended and the US was left reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets for journeys to the orbital outpost — $US4.2 billion for Boeing and $US2.6 billion for SpaceX.
Many saw Boeing as the safe bet, given its century-long history, while SpaceX was a relative unknown at the time. SpaceX, on the other hand, has just flown its fourth normal crew to the research platform, despite Boeing’s development delays costing the business hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Starliner is expected to dock with the International Space Station on Saturday morning AEST, delivering more than 226kg of cargo, including food and supplies like clothes and sleeping bags for the station’s current crew.
Its lone occupant is Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin whose mission is to collect flight data with her sensors in order to learn what human astronauts might experience. If OFT-2 succeeds, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who is slated to be among the first crew selected for a manned demonstration trip, remarked, “We are a little jealous of Rosie.”
The dazzling white-with-blue-trim capsule hovered 33 feet (10 meters) from the station for over two hours — much longer than expected — as flight controllers adjusted its docking ring and double-checked everything else. Starliner closed the deficit in four minutes after receiving the green signal, triggering shouts in Boeing’s control center. When the latches were tightly secured, applause erupted.
“The previous 48 hours have been a barnstorm, so sleeping tonight will be extremely welcome,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and director of Boeing’s commercial crew program.
For NASA’s commercial crew program director Steve Stich, who turned 57 on Friday, it was a double celebration. He told reporters, “What a fantastic birthday it was.”
Seven astronauts from the International Space Station will unload supplies and equipment from Starliner before loading it with experiments. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which lands off the coast of Florida, Starliner will land in New Mexico next Wednesday.