This evening, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, successfully docked itself to the International Space Station — demonstrating that the vehicle can potentially bring humans to the ISS in the future. It’s a crucial capability that Starliner has finally validated in space after years of delays and failures.
Starliner is in the midst of a key test flight for NASA called OFT-2, for Orbital Flight Test-2. The capsule, developed by Boeing for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, was made to transport NASA’s astronauts to and from the space station. But before anyone climbs on board, NASA tasked Boeing with conducting an uncrewed flight demonstration of Starliner to show that the capsule can hit all of the major milestones it’ll need to hit when it is carrying passengers.
Boeing has struggled to showcase Starliner’s ability until now. This mission is called OFT-2 since it’s technically a do-over of a mission that Boeing attempted back in 2019, called OFT. During that flight, Starliner launched to space as planned, but a software glitch prevented the capsule from getting in the right orbit it needed to reach to rendezvous with the ISS. Boeing had to bring the vehicle home early, and the company never demonstrated Starliner’s ability to dock with the ISS.
At 6:54PM ET, Starliner successfully launched to space on top of an Atlas V rocket, built and operated by the United Launch Alliance. Once Starliner separated from the Atlas V, it had to fire its own thrusters to insert itself into the proper orbit for reaching the space station. However, after that maneuver took place, Boeing and NASA revealed that two of the 12 thrusters Starliner uses for the procedure failed and cut off too early. The capsule’s flight control system was able to kick in and rerouted to a working thruster, which helped get Starliner into a stable orbit.
Ultimately, NASA and Boeing claimed that the issue should not impact the rest of Starliner’s mission. “There’s really no need to resolve them,” Steve Stich, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, said in a press conference after the flight. “But I know what the teams will do, and what we always do is we’ll go look at the data, try to understand what happened.” Today, Boeing revealed that a drop in chamber pressure had caused the early cutoff of the thruster, but that system behaved normally during follow-up burns of the thrusters. And with redundancies on the spacecraft, the issue “does not pose a risk to the rest of the flight test,” according to Boeing.
Boeing also noted today that the Starliner team is investigating some weird behavior of a “thermal cooling loop” but said that temperatures are stable on the spacecraft.
Wait, with the record on their 777 aircraft they are saying things like they don’t need to resolve issues?!