The Boeing astronaut capsule arrives at the International Space Station in an unmanned experiment after several failed attempts.
With only a test dummy on board, the Boeing astronaut capsule made a stop at the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time, a huge achievement for the company after years of false starts.
With the Starliner arriving late Friday, NASA finally realized its long-running effort to send crew capsules from rival US companies to the space station.
SpaceX has already started. Elon Musk’s company conducted the same test three years ago and has since launched 18 astronauts to the space station, as well as tourists.
“Today represents a great milestone,” NASA astronaut Bob Haynes radioed from the orbiting complex. “The Starliner looks beautiful in the front of the station,” he added.
The only other time a Boeing Starliner plane flew into space, it didn’t get anywhere close to the station, and it ended up in the wrong orbit.
This time, the repaired spacecraft made it to the right place after launch on Thursday and docked at the station 25 hours later. The robotic encounter took off without much hiccups, though a handful of thrusters failed.
If the rest of the Starliner mission goes well, Boeing could be ready to launch its first crew by the end of this year. Astronauts likely to serve on the first Starliner crew joined Boeing and NASA flight controllers in Houston as the operation unfolded at an altitude of 435 kilometers (270 miles).
NASA wants to repeat when it comes to servicing astronauts’ taxis in Florida. Director Bill Nelson said Boeing’s long road with the Starliner underscores the importance of having two types of crew pods. American astronauts were stuck riding Russian rockets once the shuttle program ended, until the first flight of the SpaceX crew in 2020.
Boeing’s first test flight of its Starliner in 2019 was plagued by software bugs that shortened the mission and could have destroyed the spacecraft. That was corrected, but when the new capsule was waiting to take off last summer, the corroded valves stopped the countdown. More repairs followed, with Boeing raising nearly $600 million in completion costs.
Before allowing the Starliner to approach the space station on Friday, Boeing’s ground controllers practiced maneuvering the capsule and tested its robotic vision system. Boeing said that everything was checked fine, except for the cooling ring and four failed thrusters. The capsule kept a constant temperature, and it had plenty of other motives to steer.
Once the Starliner was within 15 kilometers (10 miles) of the space station, Boeing’s flight controllers in Houston could see the space station through the capsule’s cameras. “We’re waving. Can you see us?” Hines joked.
There was only silence from the Starliner. The commander’s seat was once again taken by a mannequin dubbed Rosie Rockettier, a space-age version of Rosie the Riveter of World War II.
The bright blue-white capsule had been flying within 10 meters (33 feet) of the station for nearly two hours – much longer than planned – as flight controllers adjusted the docking ring and made sure everything else was in order. When the green light finally came, Starliner closed the gap in four minutes, to the cheers of Boeing’s control center. Clap erupted as soon as the latches were firmly attached.
The seven astronauts on the space station will unload groceries and gear from Starliner and pack them up for experiments. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule falling off the coast of Florida, Starliner aims to land in New Mexico next Wednesday.
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