Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is officially on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) after a 2.5-year delay.
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida Thursday, May 19 at 6:54 p.m. EDT (2254 GMT), carrying Starliner aloft on an uncrewed mission called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2).
If all goes as planned, Starliner will dock with the ISS Friday evening (May 20) and spend four to five days tethered to the orbiting lab before returning to Earth for a parachute-assisted landing in the western United States. Success on all of these fronts would likely show that the Boeing spacecraft is ready to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the station.
Starliner placed itself in the correct orbit after separating from the Atlas V Thursday, a milestone for Boeing and NASA. After all, the capsule was unable to make it to the ISS during the original OFT in December 2019 after suffering some software problems shortly after launch. And it failed to take off when OFT-2 first rolled out to the pad last summer; pre-launch checks revealed faulty valves in Starliner’s propulsion system, a problem that took about eight months to resolve.
Liftoff of OFT-2 was also a milestone for ULA, marking the rocket company’s 150th launch, which is a joint effort of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
At a post-launch press conference on Thursday evening, experts from NASA and Boeing were quick to congratulate their various teams for the hard work that led to the successful launch.
“Today was just a huge day for commercial crew,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. As he listed the hurdles and launch milestones of the day’s events, he also mentioned a minor Starliner malfunction.
During the spacecraft’s orbital insertion burn, which occurred 31 minutes after liftoff, two of Starliner’s thrusters failed to fire as expected. The first failed after just one second. His save fired immediately and was able to fire for another 25 seconds before failing as well. The redundant safeties activated a tertiary backup for the thruster group, and Starliner was able to complete the crucial burn without incident.
The Boeing spacecraft is fitted with four such thruster clusters on its tail section, referred to in industry nomenclature as “niches”, which each contain three orbital maneuvering and attitude control (OMAC) thrusters used for perform important maneuvers such as performing orbital maneuvers. insertion. The two OMAC thrusters that malfunctioned, and the third that intervened to compensate, were all in the same niche on the Starliner’s tail section, Boeing officials said.
“The system is designed to be redundant, and it worked as it was supposed to. Now the team is working on the ‘why’ to explain why these anomalies occurred,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and Boeing Commercial Crew Program Manager. program.
Nappi stressed that the problem was not one that needed to be solved before the OFT-2 mission was completed. During the briefing, Stich pointed out that Starliner had performed a second major burn with the same OMAC thrusters, putting it on track to meet the target. international space station.
“That second burn that we did…used that third propellant in that niche, and it worked well for that whole burn. So it doesn’t sound like something common to all three. And, like Mark [Nappi] said, they started shooting to the right. The first fired, and the second took over, fired for 25 seconds,” Stitch said.
“So we’ll just have to go through a little more troubleshooting and see if we can figure out why these two boosters didn’t complete this orbit,” he added.
Starliner will catch up with the space station on Friday evening (May 20). Once about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the orbiting lab, the spacecraft will perform shutdown and retreat maneuvers before docking at around 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT).
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