Two and a half years later than initially planned, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft successfully reached the International Space Station last week. The arrival marks an important milestone in NASA’s bid to partner with commercial companies to transport astronauts to and from the aging space station.
After launching from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday, the unmanned vessel arrived and docked at the space station on Friday, where astronauts opened its hatch and unloaded 800 pounds of food and supplies. The Starliner will remain docked there for four or five days while crews pack it with cargo to take back to Earth.
Many people back on Earth breathed a sigh of relief when the Starliner reached the space station during a mission that’s been dubbed Orbital Flight Test-2. In 2019, software issues prevented the uncrewed spacecraft from reaching the space station and, in 2021, Boeing postponed its second attempt because of a mechanical issue.
Since then, Boeing staffers have been hard at work troubleshooting and correcting the issues. Meanwhile, NASA’s other commercial partner, SpaceX, has taxied five crews to the space station since May 2020.
This time-lapse video shows the @BoeingSpace #Starliner crew ship approach the station and dock to the Harmony module at 8:28pm ET on Friday. More... https://t.co/RgllPL4Uiu pic.twitter.com/AYufaYJvAe— International Space Station (@Space_Station) May 22, 2022
If all goes to plan for the remainder of this Starliner mission, NASA may be confident enough to put astronauts on the Boeing vessel in the near future, likely by the end of next year. Researchers are measuring g-forces and other impacts to the human body during Starliner’s mission with help from Rosie the Rocketeeer, a test dummy named for World War II’s Rosie the Riveter.
After retiring its space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA entered into crew transportation agreements with Boeing and SpaceX in 2014. The space agency is partnering with two companies, instead of just one, to create redundancies in case something goes wrong with one or the other, reports Kenneth Chang for the New York Times. Partnering with commercial companies also allows NASA to be less reliant on Russia for transporting astronauts. For years, NASA paid Russia to transport astronauts to the space station, an arrangement that's become increasingly problematic amid growing political tensions between the two countries. As Air & Space's Tony Reichhardt reported in 2018, the new commercial vessels may also be safer than NASA's space shuttles, which had a 1-in-90 chance of a fatal accident.
The Starliner had a few minor issues during the orbital approach and docking phase of this mission, reports the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport. Two of Starliner’s 12 main thrusters did not fire after the vessel separated from the Atlas V rocket that launched it into space, but other thrusters automatically fired up to compensate. The thrusters worked without issue during subsequent tests.
“We have a lot of redundancy,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said at a news conference, as reported by the New York Times. “That really didn’t affect the rendezvous operations at all.”
The Starliner’s temperature control system also malfunctioned, but Boeing staffers overcame that issue by making manual adjustments that would typically be automated, per the Washington Post.
Still, both Boeing and NASA officials were buoyed by the mission so far and are optimistic that Starliner will become a viable space taxi for astronauts.
"Those are the kinds of things we expect in flight test and that is why we test," says Robert Hines, a NASA astronaut onboard the International Space Station, as reported by Space.com’s Josh Dinner. "If we didn't find something like that we're probably doing something wrong."