The mission kicked off Thursday night with a launch in Florida, and the Starliner — which is designed to carry astronauts but flies without anyone for this test — docked with the ISS Friday night at 8:28 p.m. ET. The docking happened about an hour later than planned as ground crews ironed out a few issues, including a software glitch that was causing the graphics to skew, much like a misaligned GPS map. There were also issues with the sensors and some docking components not moving properly initially.
The capsule has a docking ring that comes out as it approaches its port and is used to lock on the ISS. During the first docking attempt, some components did not move into the correct configuration. Ground crews had to try the exit process a second time to get everything in the right place. There had also been 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 resolved in time for the Starliner to move forward, and the docking eventually passed without major issues.
“It was really annoying watching that vehicle sit there for a while until it was time to get in,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, told reporters Friday night.
Several other issues arose on the mission, however, with the spacecraft’s onboard thrusters, which maneuver and steer this vehicle as it cruises through space. Two of these thrusters shut down prematurely shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit. A few other thrusters had problems later.
Despite the setbacks, the spacecraft was performing “beautifully,” according to Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, who oversees Starliner as well as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program.
“Of course, this is a test flight, and like those who have probably watched throughout the day, you have seen that we are learning along the way, and that is very exciting,” said Stich said during a Friday night press call.
NASA and Boeing officials said propellant issues aren’t major concerns because the Starliner has “lots” of built-in backups, Stich said. There are 48 such thrusters on the vehicle, and the capsule’s on-board computers may choose to use one thruster over another if they detect something slightly off.
Although Boeing wants to understand why the thrusters weren’t working as expected, Nappi says it might not be happening.
“We may never know what the real cause is,” he said.
Engineers narrowed the thruster problems down to “six or seven” possible causes, three of which seemed the most likely. Focusing on the exact problem may require engineers to see the thrusters in person, which cannot happen because the thrusters are attached to the service module – a part that will be jettisoned and left to burn in the atmosphere before the Starliner make its controlled return to Earth.
This should happen in the next few days. The Starliner will undock from the ISS, head home, then use its thrusters to return to the thick part of Earth’s atmosphere before parachuting down to land in the New Mexico desert.
If all goes well, it will be a massive win for Boeing, which is emerging from years of delays and development issues with Starliner.
The spacecraft’s first attempt to complete an orbital test mission in 2019 had to be blasted out of space prematurely, without completing docking with the ISS, due to software issues. A second attempt to launch Starliner to the ISS in August last year was aborted after pre-flight checks uncovered sticking issues with key valves.
If this mission is accomplished safely, Boeing’s Starliner could launch astronauts by the end of 2022.
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