Boeing managed to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station late last week, but was not without several minor inconveniences.
The mission began Thursday evening with a Florida launch, and the Starliner, which is designed to carry astronauts but flies unmanned for this test, docked at the ISS on Friday night at 8:28 p.m. ET. The docking occurred about an hour later than expected, as ground crews resolved some issues, including a software issue that skewed graphics, such as a misaligned GPS map. There were also issues with sensors and some coupling components that did not move properly at first.
The capsule has a coupling ring that comes out as it approaches its port and is used to attach to the ISS. During the first docking attempt, some components did not move to the proper configuration. Ground crews had to test the emerging exit process a second time to put everything in the right place. There had also been a small problem with the Starliner’s cooling loops, which are part of the spacecraft’s temperature regulating system.
All of these issues had to be analyzed or resolved in time for the Starliner to move forward, and eventually the docking came out without any major issues.
“It was very exciting to see that vehicle sitting outside for a while until it was time to go in,” Mark Nappi, director of Boeing’s Starliner program, told reporters Friday night.
However, the mission approaches other problems with the propellers aboard the spacecraft, which maneuver and steer this vehicle as it navigates space. Two of these propellers closed prematurely shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit. A couple of other propellers had problems later.
Despite the setbacks, the spacecraft performed “wonderfully,” according to Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, which oversees Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program.
“Of course this is a test flight, and like the ones you probably saw all day, you’ve seen that we’re learning along the way, and it’s very exciting,” Stich said in a press release Friday night. .
NASA and Boeing officials said propellant issues are not a major concern because the Starliner has “many” backups built in, Stich said. There are 48 such engines in the vehicle, and the capsule’s on-board computers may choose to use one engine over another if it detects something slightly off.
While Boeing wants to understand why the engines were not working as planned, Nappi said it might not happen.
“We may never know what the real cause of this is,” he said.
Engineers reduced thruster problems to “six or seven” possible causes, with three that seemed more likely. Approaching the exact problem may require engineers to see the thrusters in person, which cannot happen because the thrusters are connected to the service module, a part that will be released and burned into the atmosphere before the Starliner . their controlled return to Earth.
This is expected to happen in the coming days. The Starliner will disengage from the ISS, maneuver its way home, and then use its propellers to cut itself back into the thick part of the Earth’s atmosphere before parachuting into a desert landing. of New Mexico.
If all goes well, it will be a big win for Boeing, coming out of years of delays and development interruptions with Starliner.
The spacecraft’s first attempt to complete an orbital test mission in 2019 had to be returned from space prematurely, without completing docking to the ISS, due to software issues. A second attempt to launch Starliner at the ISS in August last year was ruled out after pre-flight checks revealed problems with key valves jamming.
If this mission is completed successfully, Boeing’s Starliner could launch astronauts in late 2022.