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Boeing's Starliner finally docks with International Space Station

Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

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.

“We’ve got to do a little bit more work to figure out why they they failed off,” Stich said.

On its way to the station, Boeing performed a series of docking maneuvers and communication tests before actually heading for a final approach.

Ahead of the final planned docking, the spacecraft entered what is known as the keep-out sphere, which mission control compared to the driveway on the front part of the space station. Leading up to the final approach, managers had to work around what they deemed to be incorrect data showing the spacecraft in the wrong position, but astronauts on board the station were able to confirm things were good.


Also, one of Starliner’s antennas stopped cooperating leading up to its final maneuver.

Now that it’s attached, the hatch won’t be opened until a target of 11:45 a.m. Saturday morning allowing for the first time humans to set foot inside the capsule in space.

That’s when the ISS crew will get to work unloading the 500 pounds of cargo for the station, greeting the lone passenger — mannequin Rosie the Rocketeer, and trying out the seats for the first time in zero gravity.

The docking marks a landmark occasion for the space station welcoming yet another human-rated spacecraft to its ports. It has previously been mated to space shuttles, Russian Soyuz craft and most recently the SpaceX Crew Dragons.

Starliner has more work to do before it gets to the Crew Dragon status, completing its five- to eight-day mission at ISS, and then making its way back to Earth as early as May 25.

Once it lands, Boeing and NASA will pore over mission data in an effort to gear up for the first human test flight dubbed Crew Flight Test. That could come later this year. And once that’s successful, NASA will finally have its two commercial taxis to space up and running.

SpaceX and Boeing had been running neck and neck in their uncrewed testing schedules, but after Boeing’s 2019 mishap, SpaceX moved forward with its Demo-2 flight sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS in May 2020. That marked the first launch to the station with humans from the U.S. since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

Following Demo-2, the Crew Dragon received NASA certification and began its rotational crew missions in November 2020 with Crew-1. The company has since flown its four Crew Dragons into space with 24 humans on board including four missions for NASA, one with private astronauts for Axiom Space that also docked with the ISS, and one private mission that orbited the Earth for three days called Inspiration4.

Boeing’s Starliner, in addition to its six ISS missions, is also expected to compete for private spaceflight duties once certified.

In the meantime, it will plod through the rest of OFT-2 until it lands in the western U.S. with the primary target being near the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Unlike Crew Dragon, which lands in the water off the coast of Florida, Starliner will touch down on land.

“There might be a couple of sleepless nights ahead of us still to get through the rest of the mission,” Napi said. Thursday night. “But today feels really good, and we have a lot of confidence in the vehicle and that it will perform very well tomorrow as well.”


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