CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — With only a dummy on board, Boeing’s astronaut capsule made its first stop at the International Space Station on Friday, a huge feat for the company after years of false starts.
With the arrival of Starliner, NASA finally realized its longstanding efforts to fly crew capsules from competing US companies to the space station.
SpaceX is already off to a flying start. Elon Musk’s company did the same test three years ago and has since sent 18 astronauts to the space station and tourists.
“Today marks a big milestone,” NASA astronaut Bob Hines said via radio from the space station. “Starliner looks beautiful from the front of the station,” he added.
The only other time Boeing’s Starliner flew into space, it never came close to the station and ended up in the wrong orbit.
This time, the overhauled spacecraft reached the right spot after Thursday’s launch and docked at the station 25 hours later. The automated rendezvous went off without major problems, despite a few thrusters failing during takeoff.
If the rest of Starliner’s mission goes well, Boeing could be ready to launch its first crew by the end of this year. The astronauts likely to serve in the first Starliner crew joined Boeing and NASA flight controllers in Houston as the action unfolded nearly 435 kilometers higher.
NASA wants redundancy when it comes to its Florida-based astronaut taxi service. Administrator Bill Nelson said Boeing’s long road with Starliner underscores the importance of having two types of crew capsules. American astronauts were trapped in Russian rockets when the shuttle program ended until SpaceX’s first crew flight in 2020.
Boeing’s first Starliner test flight in 2019 was plagued by software bugs that shortened the mission and could have doomed the spacecraft. Those were corrected, but corroded valves stopped the countdown when the new capsule waited for launch last summer. More repairs followed as Boeing incurred nearly $600 million in repair costs.
Before allowing Starliner to get close to the space station on Friday, Boeing ground controllers practiced maneuvering the capsule and tested the robotic vision system. Everything went well, Boeing said, except for a cooling loop and the two faulty thrusters. However, the tablet kept a constant temperature and had plenty of other thrusters to steer.
Once Starliner was within 15 kilometers of the space station, Boeing flight leaders in Houston could see the space station through the capsule’s cameras. ‘We’re waving. Can you see us?” Hines joked.
The gleaming white-and-blue-rimmed capsule hovered over the station for nearly two hours—significantly longer than planned—while the flight controllers adjusted the mounting ring and ensured everything else was in order. When the green light finally came, Starliner closed the gap in four minutes, sparking cheers in Boeing’s control center. Applause erupted as the latches tightened.
“To Starliner, (mannequin) Commander Rosie the Rocketeer, and all the men and women who have poured their hearts and souls into this craft and mission, welcome to the International Space Station,” Hines said.
The space station’s seven astronauts will collect groceries and equipment from Starliner and pack them with experiments. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule splashing down off the coast of Florida, Starliner will aim for a landing in New Mexico next Wednesday.
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