ORLANDO, Fla. — Getting off the Earth is one thing, but inserting tab A into slot B in space is another.
Boeing looks to solve that puzzle with its CST-100 Starliner capsule that launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday, and is set for an engagement with the International Space Station at 7:10 p.m. Eastern time Friday.
“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 as we prepare to rendezvous with the space station, but we’re ready to demonstrate the system we’ve worked so hard on is capable of carrying astronauts to space.”
The hookup is a major stepping stone to Starliner moving forward as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to fly astronauts to and from the station. 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 catch-up 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 postlaunch 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 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.
But now on its way to the station, Boeing will try to prove out a series of docking maneuvers and communication tests before actually attaching to the station. Once attached, the hatch won’t be opened until Saturday morning allowing for the first time humans to set foot inside the capsule in space.
That’s when the Expedition 67 astronauts that flew up to the ISS on the Crew-4 flight last month get to work unloading the cargo for the station, and trying out the seats for the first time in zero gravity.
“We were able to stream the video of the launch live to the crew members on board,” said NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano. “So we know they were watching the video and they’re excited to have another vehicle come on board.”