Boeing’s Starliner docks with ISS in high-stakes test mission

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The Boeing Starliner prepares to dock at the International Space Station on Friday. (AP pic)

AFP

WASHINGTON: Boeing’s Starliner capsule docked with the International Space Station Friday, a major milestone in a high-stakes uncrewed test flight as the US aerospace giant seeks to restore its reputation following past failures.

The spaceship made contact at 12.28am GMT, a little over 24 hours after it blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to prove itself capable of providing safe rides for Nasa astronauts.

“Starliner spacecraft completes its historic first docking to the International Space Station, opening a new avenue of access for crews to the orbiting laboratory,” said an announcer.

But the vessel missed the scheduled rendezvous time by more than an hour due to technical issues – including a problem that required ground control to retract its docking system then re-deploy it.

Starliner also encountered some propulsion problems early on in its journey, with two thrusters responsible for placing it in a stable orbit failing, though officials insisted these were non-critical systems.

One of 12 orbital manoeuvrings and attitude control (Omac) thrusters located on Starliner’s aft side shut off after one second, at which point a second thruster kicked in and took over, but also cut out after 25 seconds.

The ship’s software then engaged a third thruster that completed the necessary burn.

“That system operated normally during all of the propulsion system demonstrations, and with redundancies in place, does not pose a risk to the rest of the flight test,” a Nasa blog post about the issue said.

Starliner’s success is key to re-establishing Boeing’s credibility after its first launch, back in 2019, failed to dock with the ISS due to software bugs – one that led to it burning too much fuel to reach its destination, and another that could have destroyed the vehicle during re-entry.

A second try was scheduled in August 2021, but the capsule was rolled back from the launchpad to address sticky valves that weren’t opening as they should and the vessel was eventually sent back to the factory for fixes.

Nasa is looking to certify Starliner as a second “taxi” service for its astronauts to the space station – a role that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has provided since succeeding in a test mission for its Dragon capsule in 2020.

Seeking redemption 

Both companies were awarded fixed-price contracts – US$4.2 billion to Boeing and US$2.6 billion to SpaceX – in 2014, shortly after the end of the Space Shuttle programme, during a time when the US was left reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the orbital outpost.

Boeing, with its hundred-year history, was considered by many as the sure shot, while then-upstart SpaceX was less proven.

In reality, it was SpaceX that rocketed ahead and recently sent its fourth routine crew to the research platform, while Boeing’s development delays have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Starliner is delivering more than 800 pounds of cargo to the ISS as part of this mission.

Its sole passenger is a mannequin named Rosie the Rocketeer – a play on the WWII campaign icon Rosie the Riveter – whose job is to collect flight data with her sensors to learn what human astronauts would experience.

“We are a little jealous of Rosie,” Nasa astronaut Mike Fincke, who is expected to be among the first crew selected for a manned demonstration mission later this year should OFT-2 succeed, said at a press conference this week.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule will spend about five days in space, then undock and return to earth on May 25, using giant parachutes to land in the desert of the western US.

Nasa sees a second provider to low earth orbit as a vital backup, should SpaceX encounter problems.