by Marcia Dunn
Cape Canaveral, Fla. ( Associated Press) — With only a test dummy, Boeing’s astronaut capsule pulled up and parked on the International Space Station for the first time on Friday, a major achievement for the company after years of false starts.
With the advent of the Starliner, NASA finally realized its long-time effort to keep crew capsules from competing American companies flying to the space station.
SpaceX has already made an ongoing debut. Elon Musk’s company conducted a similar test three years ago and has since launched 18 astronauts to the space station as well as tourists.
“Today is a great milestone,” NASA astronaut Bob Hines radioed from the space station. “The Starliner in front of the station is looking beautiful,” he said.
Only the second time Boeing’s Starliner flew into space, it ended up in the wrong orbit, getting nowhere near the station.
This time, the overhauled spacecraft made it right after Thursday’s launch and docked at the station 25 hours later. Despite a pair of thrusters failing during liftoff, the automatic mill went off without a major hitch.
If the rest of the Starliner mission goes well, Boeing could be ready to launch its first crew by the end of this year. Astronauts who previously served on the Starliner crew were joined by flight controllers from Boeing and NASA in Houston as the action was about 270 miles (435 kilometers) up.
NASA wants redundancy when it comes to Florida-based astronaut taxi service. Administrator Bill Nelson said Boeing’s long road with the Starliner underscores the importance of having two types of crew capsules. After the shuttle program ended, until SpaceX’s first crewed flight in 2020, American astronauts were stuck aboard a Russian rocket.
Boeing’s first Starliner test flight in 2019 was plagued by software errors that shortened the mission and could wreck the spacecraft. They were fixed, but as the new capsule awaited liftoff last summer, worn out valves halted the countdown. More repairs followed, as Boeing incurred approximately $600 million in do-over costs.
Before the Starliner was allowed closer to the space station on Friday, Boeing ground controllers practiced the capsule’s maneuverability and tested its robotic vision system. Everything was thoroughly checked, Boeing said, except for the cooling loop and two failed thrusters. However, the capsule had a constant temperature, and several other thrusters for steering.
Once Starliner was within 10 miles (15 kilometers) of the space station, Boeing flight controllers in Houston could view the space station through the capsule’s cameras. “We’re waving. Can you see us?” Funny station astronaut Bob Hines.
The gleaming white-blue-trim capsule hovered about 33 feet (10 m) from the station for two hours—much longer than planned—as flight controllers adjusted its docking ring and made sure everything else was in order. When the green light finally came on, the Starliner cheered into Boeing’s control center to close the gap in four minutes. There was applause after the latch was tightly secured.
“Welcome to the International Space Station,” Hines said, “Starliner, its (mannequin) commander Rosie the Rocketeer, and all the men and women who put their heart and soul into this vehicle and this mission.”
The space station’s seven astronauts will unload groceries and gear from the Starliner and pack it with experiments. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which plummets down the Florida coast, Starliner will aim to land in New Mexico next Wednesday.
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