By Joey Roulette
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., May 20 (Reuters) – Boeing’s new Starliner crew capsule approached an orbit rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday, a day after it was successfully launched during a highly anticipated test flight without astronauts on board.
The gumball-shaped CST-100 Starliner was scheduled to arrive at the space station around 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT) to dock at the orbital research outpost 24 hours after liftoff from the base. US Space Force from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The capsule was launched into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket provided by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance (ULA) joint venture. Starliner reached its planned preliminary orbit 31 minutes later despite the failure of two thrusters on board.
After Boeing engineers met with NASA officials on Friday to greenlight Starliner’s approach to the station, the company said the two faulty boosters posed no risk to the rest of the spaceflight. .
Boeing added that it was monitoring some unexpected behavior detected with Starliner’s thermal control system, but capsule temperatures remained stable.
“It’s all part of the learning process to operate Starliner in orbit,” Boeing mission commentator Steve Siceloff said during a live NASA webcast.
Much hinges on the success of the mission, after an ill-fated first test flight in late 2019 nearly ended in the loss of the vehicle following a software glitch that effectively thwarted the vessel’s capability spacecraft to reach the space station.
Later problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to cancel a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.
Starliner remained grounded for another nine months as the two companies argued over what caused the fuel valves to close and which company to fix them, as Reuters reported last week.
Boeing said it finally fixed the issue with a temporary workaround and plans a redesign after this week’s flight.
Success is seen as essential for Boeing as the Chicago-based company scrambles to emerge from successive crises in its jetliner business and space defense unit. The Starliner program alone has cost nearly $600 million in engineering setbacks since the 2019 accident.
If all goes well with the current mission, Starliner could send its first team of astronauts to the space station as soon as fall.
For now, the only passenger was a whimsical research dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer and dressed in a blue flight suit, to collect data on crew cabin conditions during the trip, plus 800 lbs. (227 kg) of cargo to be delivered to the space station.
The research platform currently houses a crew of seven – three NASA astronauts, one European Space Agency astronaut from Italy and three Russian cosmonauts.
A successful mission will bring the long-delayed Starliner one step closer to providing NASA with a reliable second means of transporting astronauts to and from the space station.
Since resuming crewed flights in orbit from US soil in 2020, nine years after the end of the Space Shuttle program, the US space agency has had to rely solely on the company’s Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules. Elon Musk’s SpaceX to pilot NASA astronauts.
Previously, the only other option to reach the orbiting laboratory was to hitch a ride aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. (Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)