A few years later than hoped, Boeing’s Starliner space taxi arrived at the International Space Station on Friday evening.
There were no astronauts inside for this trip, but it was a critical milestone that eluded Boeing during a difficult flight test in 2019, when the same unmanned spacecraft failed to reach the orbiting outpost. The company spent two and a half years solving a series of technical problems before getting Starliner back to the launch pad, chasing SpaceX, which has since transported five crews to the space station for NASA.
The spacecraft is expected to spend four or five days in the space station before returning to Earth, skydiving to one of five landing sites in the western United States.
Successful completion of the mission could give NASA enough confidence to board astronauts for the next Starliner flight, which could take place by the end of the year.
Boeing is one of two companies that NASA has hired to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. The agency then had to rely on Russia for nearly a decade to transport astronauts. While SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is currently transporting crews to Earth orbit, a second transportation option for NASA provides redundancy in the event one of the spacecraft suffers an accident, and prevents further reliance on Russia, which has become politically complicated. since it invaded Ukraine earlier this year. year.
A day after it launched from Florida, the Starliner’s nose clicked on one of the space station’s docking ports at 8:28 p.m. Eastern Time. The hatch will open Saturday so astronauts on the space station can unload 800 pounds of cargo, mainly food and supplies.
The launch, orbital approach and docking encountered some problems, but no major problems. After Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s second stage carrying it to space, two of the spacecraft’s thrusters failed in a shootout to launch it into stable orbit. Other thrusters automatically acted to compensate. In the subsequent firings, the propulsion system worked flawlessly, and Boeing said in a statement that the problem would pose no risk to the remainder of the flight.
Boeing also reported a problem with the spacecraft’s cooling, although it added that temperatures on the spacecraft remained stable. Other key systems, including navigation, power and communications, worked well, the company said.
During the journey to the space station, the spacecraft performed a number of maneuvers as it approached the space station.
During its final approach, which lasted several hours, the spacecraft moved slowly and methodically along a carefully choreographed path. It stopped several times and temporarily pulled back – a series of demonstrations of systems designed to avoid the possibility of an uncontrollable spacecraft colliding with the space station.
It waited an hour at a distance of 10 meters in front of the space station due to a last-minute malfunction with the docking system. Once the troubleshooting was complete, a final push from the thrusters pushed it into contact with the docking port.
After a successful return from orbit and landing, Boeing will have additional work, including certification of the spacecraft’s parachutes, before NASA approves Starliner to carry astronauts. An independent security council that oversees NASA last week expressed concern that Boeing was not getting enough people on the program.
“The panel will monitor the situation for the foreseeable future to see what impact it could have on the existence or mitigation of any security risks,” said Security Council member David B. West.
After a manned demonstration mission that brought two of the three NASA astronauts to the space station, Starliner would begin regular operations, putting crews of four into orbit. NASA expects SpaceX and Boeing to fly one crew mission each year.
However, Boeing won’t be able to tap into non-NASA operations like SpaceX has done, launching two private missions into orbit in the past year. First, Boeing’s vehicle is significantly more expensive. In 2019, the NASA Inspector General estimated that NASA pays $90 million for each Starliner seat, while a seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon costs $55 million.
In addition, Boeing does not have access to the rockets needed to fly Starliner missions beyond what NASA needs. The spacecraft is currently being launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance. But the Atlas 5 is powered by Russian-built RD-180 engines. In 2016, Congress decided to demand that RD-180s be phased out. Boeing has enough Atlas 5 missiles to meet its obligations to NASA — the manned test flight and six operational flights — but no more.
Starliner can fly on other missiles, including Vulcan, the successor to the Atlas 5. But the Vulcan, which has yet to make its maiden flight, is not approved for manned missions.
However, Boeing officials have said they expect Starliner to see wider use in the future, including with a private space station called Orbital Reef, which the company is building with two other companies, Sierra Space and Blue Origin, the rocket company it founded. by Jeff. Bezos from Amazon.