Science

Boeing Starliner spacecraft docked with the International Space Station for the first time

The Boeing Starliner capsule arrived at the International Space Station on Friday night (May 20), marking a major milestone for the aerospace giant and its quest to ferry NASA astronauts to and from orbit.

Starliner lifted off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Thursday night (May 19), beginning a crucial unmanned mission to the station called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). About 22 hours later, the Starliner began to take aim at the ISS, performing a series of flybys, approaches and retreats designed to demonstrate its rendezvous skills.

This orbital dance ended today at 8:28 pm EDT (00:28 GMT May 21) when the Starliner finally connected to the station, docking with the forward port of its Harmony node. The Boeing spacecraft and station were about 270 miles above the southern Indian Ocean as they entered orbit.

“The Starliner looks beautiful on the front of the space station,” NASA astronaut Robert Hines told Mission Control from the station after docking.

Current Updates: Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2 mission to the ISS
Related: Boeing Starliner OFT-2 test flight in amazing photos

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The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft docked at the International Space Station on May 20, 2022.

The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft docked at the International Space Station on May 20, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

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The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft is 10 meters from the International Space Station during its first-ever docking on May 20, 2022.

The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft is 10 meters from the International Space Station during its first-ever docking on May 20, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

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The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft approaches the International Space Station during its first-ever docking on May 20, 2022.

The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft approaches the International Space Station during its first-ever docking on May 20, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

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The Boeing Starliner capsule conducts flight tests ahead of its scheduled docking with the International Space Station on May 20, 2022.

The Boeing Starliner capsule conducts flight tests ahead of its scheduled docking with the International Space Station on May 20, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

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The Boeing Starliner capsule as seen from the International Space Station on May 20, 2022, more than two hours before the capsule's scheduled docking with the orbiting laboratory.

The Boeing Starliner capsule as seen from the International Space Station on May 20, 2022, more than two hours before the capsule’s scheduled docking with the orbiting laboratory. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The docking took place more than an hour later than planned.

NASA and Boeing originally intended to dock the Starliner to the station at 7:10 pm EDT (2310 GMT), but first delayed to wait for better lighting and communication conditions, then delayed again to reboot the space capsule’s NASA docking system. or NDS. when they discovered a small anomaly. This reset worked and the Starliner connected seamlessly to its docking port.

However, it was a landmark moment for Boeing, which in 2014 signed a multi-billion dollar contract with NASA to fly astronauts to and from the ISS using the Starliner. Today’s docking has shown that the capsule can indeed reach the orbital laboratory, something it has not been able to do before.

The original OFT, launched in December 2019, ended prematurely after Starliner experienced a series of software failures and got stuck in an orbit too low to secure a rendezvous with the ISS. And OFT-2 was originally supposed to launch last summer, but a pre-launch check showed that 13 of the 24 oxidizer valves in the Starliner propulsion system had jammed. It took about eight months to identify the cause of the problem and fix it.

At OFT-2, too, not everything is going smoothly yet. One of the Starliner’s engines failed during its critical orbital insertion 31 minutes after liftoff, NASA and Boeing officials said at a post-launch press conference Thursday night.

This engine’s backup engine fired to make up for this, but failed before the burn was complete. The third standby engine then fired up and Starliner was able to enter the correct orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. The standby engine also performed well during the subsequent launch of the Starliner engine Thursday night, NASA officials said.

“The system is designed to be redundant and it worked as intended. The team is now working on why we’re having these anomalies.” — Mark Nappi, Vice President and Program Manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. , – said during a press conference.

Mission members determined that the two engine failures were caused by a pressure drop in the chamber, Boeing said in a statement emailed this afternoon. The statement said the engine system “operated normally during all propulsion demonstrations and with redundancy in place, poses no risk to the rest of flight testing.”

The statement added that Starliner went through a series of tests before it began approaching the ISS, including abort maneuvers and a test of its Vision-based electro-optical sensor (VESTA) tracking system, which it used to capture the orbiting laboratory.

“Mission control teams continue to learn more about the vehicle and how it performs in space, and it continues to perform well as it travels toward the station,” Boeing said in a statement. “Guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) systems work nominally. The flight software works as intended. Energy production is positive.”

The team found some unexpected behavior in the “thermal refrigeration loop,” but Starliner was able to maintain a stable temperature, the statement said.

The Boeing Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft is 10 meters from the International Space Station during its first-ever docking on May 20, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The Starliner is now safely on the ISS, where it will stay for four or five days before heading to land in the western United States. If the capsule can make it past the remaining stages, it could very well be cleared to carry NASA astronauts to the station, possibly before the end of the year.

“Today marks a major milestone in enabling additional commercial access to low Earth orbit, supporting the ISS, and allowing NASA to achieve its goal of returning humans to the Moon and eventually Mars,” said NASA astronaut Hines. he congratulated the Boeing team. The great achievements of man in space have long remained in the memory of history. Today is no different.

And speaking of OFT-2 milestones, the next big thing you can watch is the opening of the hatches between Starliner and the ISS, after which the astronauts currently living in the orbiting lab can board the newcomer. This should happen around 11:45 AM EDT (15:45 GMT) on Saturday (May 21). You can watch it live on Space.com, courtesy of NASA; coverage will begin at 11:30 AM EST (1530 GMT).

Boeing isn’t the only company to have a NASA commercial crew contract; The agency signed a similar deal with SpaceX in 2014. Elon Musk’s company has already launched a taxi service for astronauts, launching four operational crewed missions to the ISS for NASA to date.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate) about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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