ORLANDO, Fla. — Getting off the Earth is one thing, but inserting tab A into slot B in space is another.
Boeing solved that puzzle with its CST-100 Starliner capsule that launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday, when it docked with the International Space Station on Friday night.
The uncrewed spacecraft connected with the forward port of the ISS’s Harmony module just a short distance away from the commercial competitor SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom that brought up the Crew-4 astronauts to the station last month.
Crew-3 astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines were on duty to welcome the capsule.
“Contact capture,” sounded off Hines as the Starliner finished its final 32 feet approach while traveling just ahead of the ISS at more than 17,500 miles per hour 271 miles over the South Indian Ocean.
The hookup marks a significant step in Boeing’s continue effort to join SpaceX as the two Commercial Crew Program providers to ferry astronauts to and from the station.
“We’ve learned a lot about the capability of our spacecraft and the resilience of our team since the first Starliner launch,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for the Boeing Commercial Crew Program. “We still have a lot of operational testing ahead ... but we’re ready to demonstrate the system we’ve worked so hard on is capable of carrying astronauts to space.”
SpaceX and Boeing both won contracts to supply six flights for rotational crew changes to the ISS, but while SpaceX has surged ahead already on its fourth operational mission, Boeing is playing catchup with this mission dubbed Orbital Flight Test-2.
It’s a redo of a December 2019 mission that launched and landed successfully, but because of software and communication issues, was not able to make it to the space station. NASA referred to the mission as a “high visibility close call” that led to a post-launch review calling for 80 changes to the program, which then led to nearly 2 1/2 years before this week’s reflight, which is being done at no cost to NASA.
The launch itself wasn’t without problems. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said two of 12 aft-facing orbital maneuvering thrusters failed, but the system was designed to be redundant and was able to achieve the correct the orbital insertion through the remaining thrusters.