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Boeing managed to dock the Starliner capsule to the ISS years after the first test failed

It took a little longer for Boeing’s uncrewed Starliner capsule to dock with the International Space Station for the first time, with NASA Mission Control announcing that the spacecraft had officially docked with the ISS at 5:28 a.m. PT Friday.

The milestone came just over an hour later than originally planned and more than two years since Starliner’s last attempt to reach the orbital lab.

Astronauts living on the station will open the hatch to Starliner on Saturday and unload cargo of food and other cargo inside. The capsule is expected to spend several days attached to the ISS before returning to Earth.

Boeing managed to dock the Starliner capsule to the ISS years after the first test failed

Starliner seen docked with the ISS on Friday.

NASA television

The capsule launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 3:54 p.m. PT Thursday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The mission is called Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) because Starliner’s first OFT attempt in 2019 saw the conical craft fail to reach the ISS due to a software glitch. The vehicle successfully landed on Earth, but a NASA safety advisory board later revealed that a second software glitch had been fixed mid-flight, which presented “the potential for catastrophic spacecraft failure”.

Starliner’s problems continued after Boeing worked to address 80 recommendations made by NASA following an investigation into what happened during the first OFT. It deployed Starliner to the launch pad in August last year, but technical problems hampered the launch and the vehicle had to be brought inside for inspection. A problem with some valves delayed the test for months until it finally took off on Thursday.

“Through adversity, our teams have continued to innovate for the benefit of our nation and all of humanity,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a post-launch statement. “I look forward to a successful end-to-end test of the Starliner spacecraft, which will help enable missions with astronauts on board.”

NASA has invested more than $4 billion in Starliner through its Commercial Crew program. It is one of two commercial vehicles the agency has chosen to eventually ferry astronauts to the ISS. The other was SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has already sent four batches of astronauts to the space station.

Aside from the large chunk of taxpayer money already invested in the spacecraft, it is in NASA’s interest that Boeing succeed for another reason. He could use another option to send astronauts to and from space, to avoid the imperfect place he found himself after the space shuttle retired in 2011.

For the next nine years, Russian Soyuz capsules were the only route to and from orbit. That was until SpaceX sent two astronauts to the ISS for the first time aboard a Crew Dragon in 2020. Elon Musk’s company achieved this feat almost two years ago after obtaining a commercial crew contract from NASA at the same time as Boeing, and for over $1 billion less.

It’s unclear how far away Boeing’s first attempt at a crewed demonstration mission might be.

Until NASA gives Boeing the go-ahead for crewed astronaut missions, the agency’s only two options for sending humans into orbit are SpaceX and Russia’s Soyuz. But relations with the Russian space agency Roscosmos are tense right now following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and international sanctions against Russia.

Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin made bizarre threats, alluding to blocking cooperation on the ISS and even sending it into “uncontrolled de-orbiting and downfall to the United States or Europe.”

So it would clearly be nice for NASA to have two US-based companies that its astronauts could hitchhike with.


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