Boeing’s Starliner capsule arrived at the International Space Station on Friday evening (May 20), marking a major milestone for the aerospace giant and its quest to fly NASA astronauts to and from orbit.
Starliner took off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Thursday evening (May 19), launching a crucial uncrewed mission to the station called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). About 22 hours later, Starliner began to focus on the ISS, performing a series of flybys, approaches and retreats designed to showcase its rendezvous chops.
This orbital dance culminated at 8:28 p.m. EDT (0028 GMT May 21) today when Starliner finally connected to the station, docking at the forward-facing port of its Harmony node. the Boeing the spacecraft and station were cruising about 270 miles above the southern Indian Ocean when they met in orbit.
“Starliner looks beautiful on the front of the space station,” NASA astronaut Robert Hines radioed to mission control from the station after docking.
The docking took place more than an hour later than planned.
NASA and Boeing originally aimed to dock Starliner with the station at 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT), but first waited for better lighting and communication conditions, then delayed it again to reset the NASA’s Docking System, or NDS, of the space capsule. when they detected a small anomaly. This reset worked and Starliner connected smoothly with its docking port.
Still, it was a monumental moment for Boeing, which signed a multi-billion dollar contract with NASA in 2014 to transport astronauts to and from the ISS using Starliner. Today’s docking showed the capsule can indeed make it to the orbiting lab, something it has failed to do once before.
The original OFT, which launched in December 2019, ended prematurely after Starliner suffered a series of software bugs and grounded in an orbit too low to allow an ISS rendezvous. And OFT-2 was originally scheduled to take off last summer, but pre-launch checks revealed that 13 of the 24 oxidation valves in Starliner’s propulsion system we were stuck. It took about eight months to identify the cause of the problem and fix it.
OFT-2 hasn’t gone smoothly so far either. One of Starliner’s boosters malfunctioned during its critical orbital insertion burn 31 minutes after liftoff, NASA and Boeing officials said at a post-launch news conference Thursday night.
This thruster’s backup fired to compensate but failed before completing the burn. A tertiary backup booster then fired up and Starliner was able to place itself in the correct orbit for an ISS rendezvous. That one-shot backup thruster also performed well during a subsequent Starliner engine burn Thursday night, NASA 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,” Mark Nappi, vice president and head of program for Boeing Commercial Crew Programsaid at the press conference.
Mission team members have now determined that both thruster failures were caused by a drop in chamber pressure, Boeing officials said in a statement sent this afternoon. The thruster system “operated normally during all propulsion system demonstrations, and with redundancies in place, presents no risk for the remainder of the flight test,” the statement said.
The statement adds that Starliner passed a series of tests before beginning to approach the ISS, including abort maneuvers and a test of its Electro-Optical Sensor Tracking Assembly System (VESTA). vision-based, which he used to lock onto the orbiting lab.
“Flight control teams continue to learn more about the vehicle and how it operates in space, and it continues to perform well as it makes its way to station,” Boeing representatives said in the statement. communicated. “Guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) systems are functioning normally. Flight software is running as expected. Power output is positive.”
The team identified unexpected behavior in a “thermal cooling loop”, but Starliner was able to maintain a stable temperature, the statement added.
And Starliner is now safely at the ISS, where it will stay for four or five days before heading back for a landing in the western United States. If the capsule manages to complete the remaining milestones, it could well be cleared to carry NASA astronauts to the station, possibly before the end of the year.
“Today marks an important milestone, providing additional commercial access to low Earth orbit, supporting the ISS, and enabling NASA to bring humans back to the moon and, eventually, to March“, said Hines, the NASA astronaut, at mission control from the station as he congratulated the Boeing team.
And speaking of OFT-2 milestones – the next big one you can watch is the opening of the hatches between Starliner and the ISS, after which astronauts currently living on the orbiting lab can float aboard the new arrival. This is expected to happen around 11:45 a.m. EDT (3:45 p.m. GMT) on Saturday, May 21. You can watch it live on Space.com, Courtesy of NASA; coverage will begin at 11:30 a.m. EDT (3:30 p.m. GMT).
Boeing isn’t the only company to hold a commercial crew contract with NASA; the agency has signed a similar agreement with SpaceX in 2014. Elon Musk’s company has already established its astronaut taxi service, launching four operational crewed missions to the ISS for NASA so far.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom Or on Facebook.
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