Boeing’s Starliner docks with NASA’s space station

Two years later than hoped, Boeing’s Starliner space taxi arrived at the International Space Station on Friday evening.

There were no astronauts inside for this flight, but it was a critical milestone that eluded Boeing during a turbulent flight test in 2019, when the same unmanned spacecraft failed to reach the orbital position. The company spent two and a half years fixing a series of technical issues before returning the Starliner to the launch pad, trailing SpaceX, which has since moved five crews to NASA’s space station.

The spacecraft is expected to spend four or five days in the space station before returning to Earth, and parachuting to one of five landing sites in the western United States.

The successful conclusion of the mission could provide enough confidence for NASA to put astronauts on board the next Starliner flight, which could happen by the end of the year.

Boeing is one of two companies hired by NASA to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The contracts were issued in 2014, three years after NASA retired the space shuttles. The agency then had to rely on Russia to transport astronauts for nearly a decade. While SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is currently flying crews into orbit, NASA’s second transportation option provides redundancy in the event of any spacecraft accident, and prevents further dependence on Russia, which has since become politically complex. He invaded Ukraine earlier this year.

The day after it was launched from Florida, the Starliner’s nose closed on one of the space station’s docking ports at 8:28 p.m. ET. Its door will open on Saturday, allowing astronauts on the space station to begin unloading 800 pounds of cargo, mostly food and supplies.

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The launch, orbital approach and docking encountered some gaps but not major problems. After the Starliner separated from the second stage of the Atlas 5 rocket that carried it into space, Two of the spacecraft’s thrusters during firing failed to put them into a stable orbit. Other payments automatically kicked in to compensate. In subsequent launches, the propulsion system worked without problems, and Boeing said in a statement that the problem would not pose a risk to the rest of the flight.

Boeing also reported a problem with the spacecraft’s cooling, although it added that temperatures on the spacecraft remained stable. The company’s statement said other major systems, including navigation, power and communications, worked well.

During the flight to the space station, the spacecraft performed a number of maneuvers while approaching the space station.

During its final approach, which lasted several hours, the spacecraft moved slowly and methodically along a carefully designed path. Several stops and pauses – a series of demonstrations of systems designed to prevent an out-of-control spacecraft from colliding with the space station.

I waited 32 feet in front of the space station for an hour due to a last-minute docking system malfunction. Once the troubleshooting was complete, one last push by the thrusters brought it into contact with the docking port.

After the successful return from orbit and landing, Boeing will still have additional work to do, including certification of the spacecraft’s parachutes, before NASA approves the Starliner to transport astronauts. An independent safety board that oversees NASA expressed concern last week that Boeing did not have enough people working on the program.

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David B. said:

After a manned demonstration mission that takes two of the three NASA astronauts to the space station, Starliner will begin its regular operations, taking crews of four into orbit. NASA expects SpaceX and Boeing to each make one crewed flight per year.

However, Boeing won’t be able to capitalize on any non-NASA company as SpaceX has, launching two missions for private citizens over the past year. For example, a Boeing car is much more expensive. In 2019, NASA’s inspector general estimated that NASA pays $90 million for each Starliner seat while a SpaceX Crew Dragon seat costs $55 million.

In addition, Boeing does not have access to the rockets needed to fly Starliner missions beyond what NASA requires. Currently, the spacecraft is being launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket built by the United Launch Alliance. But the Atlas 5 is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines. In 2016, Congress decided to order the phase-out of RD-180s. Boeing has enough Atlas 5 missiles to meet its commitments to NASA — the manned test flight and six operational flights — but no more.

The Starliner can fly on other missiles, including the Vulcan, the successor to the Atlas 5. But the Vulcan, which has not yet made its maiden flight, is not approved for manned missions.

However, Boeing officials said they expect the Starliner to find wider use in the future, including with A special space station called Orbital Reefwhich the company is building with two other companies, Sierra Space and Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

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