Boeing’s Starliner docks with space station after ‘excruciating’ wait

Boeing’s Starliner space capsule hangs in front of the International Space Station in preparation for docking. (NASA via Twitter)

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi docked with the International Space Station for the first time today during an uncrewed flight test, marking another major step toward authorization to carry astronauts into orbit.

But it wasn’t easy.

“The last few hours have been excruciating,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, during a post-docking teleconference for reporters.

Despite some glitches, Lueders and other NASA and Boeing team leaders said they were generally pleased with Starliner’s performance, beginning with Thursday’s launch from Florida and continuing through today’s series of orbital maneuvers.

“We have learned a lot from this mission in the last 24 hours,” Lueders said.

Docking was originally scheduled for 7:10 pm ET (4:10 pm PT), but an issue with docking system components delayed the connection for more than an hour. Starliner had to be ordered to retract its docking ring, reboot, and try again. The official docking time was 8:28 pm ET (5:28 pm PT).

Mission managers also reported problems with the spacecraft’s thermal cooling loops and a pair of reaction control system thrusters, but workarounds were quickly implemented.

Boeing vice president and manager of commercial crew programs Mark Nappi said the cooling loops may have gotten too cold because there weren’t any warm-blooded astronauts inside the capsule to heat things up. The sole occupant was a sensor-equipped mannequin nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer.

Engineers continued to troubleshoot two of Starliner’s most powerful maneuvering thrusters, which shut down prematurely during Thursday’s orbital insertion. Nappi said there were “three or more” plausible causes for the shutdowns, but even if the issue isn’t resolved, Starliner can complete this test mission without the Rebel boosters.

The propulsion system, which was built at the Aerojet Rocketdyne facility in Redmond, Washington, is designed to burn up with the rest of the Starliner service module when it is jettisoned during re-entry into the atmosphere.

“We may never know what the real cause of this is, because we didn’t recover this vehicle,” Nappi said.

The space station crew is scheduled to open Starliner’s hatch on Saturday and begin a series of in-orbit checks. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will undock and descend to land in New Mexico on May 25. NASA and Boeing can wait out unacceptable weather, or even choose an alternate landing site in the western US if necessary.

Starliner is already further down the checklist than it was in 2019, when an automatic timer failed and forced the team to cancel a planned space station docking. Boeing has had to organize a second uncrewed test flight at its own expense, with costs amounting to $595 million so far.

If this test mission goes well, Boeing’s Starliner could take its place alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as a US-built spacecraft for NASA astronauts to fly in later this year. NASA pays companies per ride, in a contractual arrangement similar to the business model of a taxi service.

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