Boeing’s Starliner has successfully reached and docked at the International Space Station, marking an important step towards a crucial test flight that would determine its readiness for manned missions. The unmanned spacecraft was launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral and traveled more than 25 hours to reach the orbiting laboratory.
Starliner made its first attempt to reach the ISS in December 2019, but failed to reach its target due to a software glitch that prevented the spacecraft’s thrusters from firing. In August last year, Boeing had to scrap its launch plans due to a problem with the spacecraft’s valves, which prevented the company from planning another launch for nearly a year.
While successful, Orbital Flight Test-2 was not without its own problems. As The Washington Post reports, two of the 12 main thrusters failed shortly after launch and the temperature control system malfunctioned. The docking process was also delayed by over an hour as the ground team made sure the lighting was ideal and communications were working as intended. There was also a problem with the spacecraft’s docking mechanism, and it had to retract the system before extending it a second time.
Boeing said Starliner’s main propellers failed due to a pressure drop in the thruster chamber, but it’s not clear what caused it. The company’s vice president, Mark Nappi, explained that since the thrusters are on the service module that is discarded during the return flight, Boeing may never discover the exact reason for them. Still, NASA and the company plan to investigate the other issues that have arisen to understand them and prevent them from happening in the future.
Starliner will remain docked at the ISS for the next five days before making its return journey, which will see it land in the New Mexico desert. If the spacecraft successfully returns to Earth, Boeing could send astronauts to orbit as early as the fall.
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