Better to come late than never. After years of development and repeated attempts, Boeing’s space capsule, Starliner, was successfully docked at the International Space Station on Friday. A success for the company that should deliver future astronauts for NASA, even though this empty test flight took place several years behind SpaceX.
Docking using the Space Station (ISS) occurred at 8:28 pm U.S. East Coast time (00:28 GMT Saturday), more than an hour behind the originally scheduled time due to final checks during the maneuver, which was meticulously choreographed 400 km above our heads.
Astronauts aboard the ISS, and the control room in Houston, are closely monitoring the approach. The Starliner first hit about 250 m from the station. Then, after a slight advance, the capsule is retracted to show that it can be retracted if necessary.
Finally, after a new controlled stop even longer than expected at 10 m, the meticulous final maneuver, carried out while the station was accelerating at 28,000 km/h, was initiated. Slowly the car approached, until it came together.
Victory of half a heart
“The Starliner spacecraft has successfully completed its historic first docking at the International Space Station, opening a new route to the flying laboratory for crews,” the U.S. space agency said in a live broadcast.
The capsule hatch will only open this Saturday. Boeing carries approximately 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA, including food. The Starliner must remain docked on the ISS for about five days, before descending back to Earth to land in the desert of the U.S. state of New Mexico, at the base of White Sands.
This unmanned test flight ends several years of setbacks after the first unsuccessful test in 2019. The capsule could not be placed in the correct orbit due to a clock problem. Boeing then realized that other software problems had almost caused a serious flight anomaly.
There are many setbacks
Since then, Boeing has struggled to keep up with SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace sector. This competitor belonging to American billionaire Elon Musk has been bringing in astronauts for NASA since 2020.
In 2021, another failure: while the rocket was already on the launch pad to try to fly again, a humidity problem caused a chemical reaction that blocked the opening of some capsule valves. He had to return to the factory for inspection, within ten months.
The 2022 edition of Starliner has not escaped some fears. Two of the boosters on the Atlas V rocket carrying the capsule failed to ignite, 30 minutes after launch from Florida. The machine was still able to put itself on the right trajectory. According to NASA and Boeing, the incident remains minimal, the system “poses no risk for the rest of the test flight”.
VIDEO. Last chance mission for the Boeing space capsule after years of waiting
The thrusters will be used again at the end of the mission, for the maneuver intended to return the capsule to the Earth’s atmosphere. But the problem was not an a priori “need to be solved” at the time, previous pushes would nevertheless work, NASA’s Steve Stich estimated at a press conference Thursday night.
Chasing Space X
After this empty test, a second needs to be taken for the spacecraft to get NASA approval, this time with astronauts on board. The timing depends on how the Starliner performs this week, but Boeing plans to fly it by the end of the year.
For the American space agency as well, the stakes are high, as it has invested heavily in the development of the vessel. NASA has fixed-price contracts with Boeing and SpaceX worth billions of dollars.
Choosing to use two companies should make it possible to encourage competition and not to again risk, in case there is a problem for one or the other, to end up without an American “taxi” to the ISS. After the closure of space shuttles in 2011, and until 2020, NASA has actually reduced payment for space on Russian Soyuz rockets.