Two and a half years later than originally planned, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft successfully reached the International Space Station last week. The arrival marks a milestone in NASA’s attempt to partner with commercial companies to ferry astronauts to and from the aging space station.
After launching from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida on Thursday, the unmanned craft arrived and docked with the space station on Friday, where astronauts opened his hatch and unloaded 800 pounds of food and supplies. The Starliner will remain docked there for four or five days while crews load it with cargo to bring back to Earth.
— Samantha Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) May 21, 2022
Many people on Earth breathed a sigh of relief when the Starliner reached the space station on a mission dubbed Orbital Flight Test-2. In 2019, software problems prevented the unmanned spacecraft from reaching the space station and, in 2021, Boeing postponed his second attempt due to a mechanical problem.
Since then, Boeing employees have worked hard to troubleshoot and correct the issues. Meanwhile, NASA’s other business partner, SpaceX, has flown five crew to the space station since May 2020.
This time-lapse video shows @BoeingSpace #Starliner the crew ship approaches the station and docks with the Harmony module at 8:28 p.m. ET Friday. After… https://t.co/RgllPL4Uiu pic.twitter.com/AYufaYJvAe
— International Space Station (@Space_Station) May 22, 2022
If all goes according to plan for the remainder of this Starliner mission, NASA might be confident enough to send astronauts to the Boeing ship in the near future, likely by the end of next year. Researchers measure g-forces and other impacts on the human body during Starliner’s mission with the help of Rosie the Rocketa test dummy named after Rosie the Riveter from World War II.
After retire its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, NASA entered into crew transport agreements with Boeing and SpaceX in 2014. The space agency partners with two companies, instead of just one, to create layoffs in the event of a problem with the one or the other, reports Kenneth Chang for the New York Times. The partnership with commercial companies also allows NASA to be less dependent on Russia for the transport of astronauts. For years, NASA paid Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station, an arrangement that has become increasingly problematic amid growing political tensions between the two countries. Like Air & SpaceAccording to Tony Reichhardt in 2018, new commercial ships may also be safer than NASA space shuttles, which had a 1 in 90 chance of a fatal accident.
The Starliner had some minor issues during the orbital approach and docking phase of this mission, reports the Washington Postby Christian Davenport. Two of Starliner’s 12 main thrusters failed to fire after the craft separated from the Atlas V rocket that launched it into space, but other thrusters automatically fired to compensate. The thrusters worked smoothly in subsequent tests.
“We have a lot of redundancy,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, told a press conference, as reported by the New York Times. “It really didn’t affect dating operations at all.”
The Starliner’s temperature control system also malfunctioned, but Boeing employees overcame this problem by making manual adjustments that would usually be automated, according to the Washington Post.
Still, Boeing and NASA officials have been supportive of the mission so far and are optimistic that Starliner will become a viable space taxi for astronauts.
“That’s the kind of stuff we expect in flight testing and that’s why we test,” says Robert Hines, a NASA astronaut aboard the International Space Station, as reported by Space.comIt’s Josh Diner. “If we haven’t found something like that, we’re probably doing something wrong.”