Boeing docks crew capsule to space station as part of redesign test
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida.
With just a test dummy on board, Boeing’s astronaut capsule stopped and parked at the International Space Station for the first time on Friday, a huge achievement for the company after years of false starts.
With the arrival of Starliner, NASA is finally realizing its long-standing effort to fly crew capsules from competing American companies to the space station.
SpaceX already has a start in progress. Elon Musk’s company passed the same test three years ago and has since sent 18 astronauts to the space station, along with tourists.
“Today marks a significant milestone,” NASA astronaut Bob Hines radioed from the orbiting complex. “Starliner looks beautiful on the front of the station,” he added.
The only other time the Boeing Starliner flew into space, it never approached the station, ending up in the wrong orbit.
This time, the overhauled spacecraft traveled to the right location after Thursday’s launch and docked with the station 25 hours later. The automated rendezvous went off without a major hitch, despite the failure of a handful of thrusters.
If the rest of Starliner’s mission goes well, Boeing could be ready to launch its first crew by the end of this year. Astronauts likely to be part of the Starliner’s first crew joined Boeing and NASA flight controllers in Houston as the action unfolded nearly 270 miles away.
NASA wants redundancy when it comes to the Florida-based astronaut taxi service. Administrator Bill Nelson said Boeing’s long run with Starliner underscores the importance of having two types of crew capsules. American astronauts were stuck on Russian rockets once the shuttle program ended, until SpaceX’s first crewed flight in 2020.
Boeing’s first Starliner test flight in 2019 was plagued with software errors that shortened the mission and could have doomed the spacecraft. These have been fixed, but when the new capsule waited for liftoff last summer, corroded valves interrupted the countdown. More repairs followed, as Boeing racked up nearly $600 million in redesign costs.
Before letting Starliner approach the space station on Friday, Boeing ground controllers practiced maneuvering the capsule and tested its robotic vision system. All went well, Boeing said, except for a cooling loop and four faulty thrusters. However, the capsule maintained a constant temperature and had many other thrusters for steering.
Once Starliner was within 10 miles (15 kilometers) of the space station, Boeing flight controllers in Houston could see the space station through the capsule’s cameras. “We salute you. Can you see us?” Hines joked.
There was only Starliner’s silence. The commander’s seat was once again occupied by the dummy nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer, a space-age version of Rosie the Riveter from World War II.
The shiny white capsule with blue trim hovered 33 feet (10 meters) from the station for almost two hours – considerably longer than expected – as flight controllers adjusted its docking ring and made sure everything the rest was in order. When the go-ahead finally came, Starliner closed the gap in four minutes, prompting cheers in Boeing’s control center. Applause erupted once the latches were securely closed.
“The last 48 hours has just been a snowstorm, so it’s going to be pretty good to sleep in tonight,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and director of the commercial crew program at Boeing.
It was a double celebration for NASA commercial crew program director Steve Stich, who turned 57 on Friday. “It was an amazing birthday,” he told reporters.
The space station’s seven astronauts will unload supplies and equipment from Starliner and fill it with experiments. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule splashing down off the coast of Florida, Starliner will be aiming for a landing in New Mexico next Wednesday.
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