With only a test dummy aboard, Boeing’s astronaut capsule pulled up and parked at the International Space Station for the first time Friday, a massive achievement for the company after years of false starts.
With Starliner’s arrival, NASA finally realized its longtime effort to have crew capsules from competing U.S. companies flying to the space station.
SpaceX already has a running start. Elon Musk’s company pulled off the same test three years ago and has since launched 18 astronauts to the space station and tourists.
“Today marks a great milestone,” NASA astronaut Bob Hines radioed from the space station. “Starliner is looking beautiful on the front of the station,” he added.
The only other time Boeing’s Starliner flew in space, it never got anywhere near the station, ending up in the wrong orbit.
This time, the overhauled spacecraft made it to the right spot following Thursday’s launch and docked at the station 25 hours later. The automated rendezvous went off without a significant hitch, despite a pair of thrusters that failed during liftoff.
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 on the first Starliner crew joined Boeing and NASA flight controllers in Houston as the action unfolded nearly 270 miles (435 kilometres) up.
NASA wants redundancy when it comes to the 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. U.S. astronauts were stuck riding Russian rockets once the shuttle program ended until SpaceX’s first crew flight in 2020.
Boeing’s first Starliner test flight in 2019 was plagued by software errors that cut the mission short and could have doomed the spacecraft. Those were corrected, but corroded valves halted the countdown when the new capsule awaited liftoff last summer. More repairs followed as Boeing chalked up nearly $600 million in do-over costs.
Before letting Starliner get close to the space station Friday, Boeing ground controllers practised maneuvering the capsule and tested its robotic vision system. Boeing said everything checked out well, except for a cooling loop and the two failed thrusters. However, the tablet held a steady temperature and had plenty of other thrusters for steering.
Once Starliner was within 10 miles (15 kilometres) of the space station, Boeing flight controllers in Houston could see the space station through the capsule’s cameras. “We’re waving. Can you see us?” joked station astronaut Bob Hines.
The gleaming white-with-blue-trim capsule hovered 33 feet (10 meters) from the station for two hours — considerably longer than planned — as flight controllers adjusted its docking ring and ensured everything else was in order. When the green light finally came, Starliner closed the gap in four minutes, eliciting cheers in Boeing’s control centre. Applause erupted once the latches were tightly secured.
“To Starliner, its (mannequin) commander Rosie the Rocketeer, and all the men and women who poured their hearts and souls into this vehicle and this mission, welcome to the International Space Station,” Hines said.
The space station’s seven astronauts will unload groceries and gear from Starliner and pack it up with experiments. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that splashes down off the Florida coast, Starliner will aim for a landing in New Mexico next Wednesday.