SpaceX founder Elon Musk congratulates Boeing for docking Starliner to the Space Station for the first time next to Crew Dragon

SpaceX founder Elon Musk congratulates Boeing for docking Starliner to the Space Station for the first time next to Crew Dragon

The NASA Commercial Crew Program aims to conduct routine rotational crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The agency has invested over $5 billion in SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner development to perform crewed flights from American soil and end the decade long dependency on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory. 

NASA planned to alternate between Boeing & SpaceX to conduct crewed missions, however, Boeing’s Starliner faced some issues during its first Orbital Flight Test-1 (OFT-1) demonstration mission in 2019 that meant to certify the spacecraft for human spaceflight. Starliner development is roughly 3-years late; SpaceX is the only American company that has transported humans to the ISS since NASA retired its Space Shuttle in 2011. 

SpaceX has conducted a total of five missions to the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program since 2020, including Demo-2, Crew-1, Crew-2, Crew-3 and the ongoing Crew-4 mission. SpaceX also launched the first all-private mission to the ISS, as well as the first orbital civilian mission with its reusable Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Boeing performed the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission on Thursday, May 19.  Starliner launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 6:54 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The uncrewed Starliner spacecraft docked to the ISS Harmony module on May 20 at 8:28 p.m. EDT next to Crew-4's Crew Dragon. SpaceX founder Elon Musk congratulated Boeing for docking Starliner to the Space Station for the first time [via Twitter]. SpaceX Crew-4 European Space Agency Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti captured a stunning image of Starliner out of Dragon's window, pictured below. 

Starliner docked after facing some technical issues it faced during its 25-hour journey to the ISS outpost. During a press conference, Boeing and NASA representatives shared that the main technical Starliner issues faced on the OFT-2 mission was the failure of 2 thrusters on the Starliner service module that Boeing says was caused by pressure drop inside in the thrusters' chamber. Starliner has 4 thruster ports each with 3 orbital maneuvering and attitude control (OMAC) thrusters. When Starliner performed an orbital insertion burn 31 minutes after liftoff, the first thruster failed to ignite after only one second, its backup thruster turned on and was able to fire for 25 seconds before it also failed. A third thruster activated a as backup and Starliner completed the orbital insertion without a major incident. “We have a lot of redundancy so that really didn’t affect the rendezvous operations at all or affect the rest of the flight. I know after the flight, we’ll go study the failures there and see what happened," said NASA’s commercial crew program manager Steve Stich.

However, Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi, said that it was not entirely clear what caused the problem with the drop in pressure and explained to reporters that the thrusters are located on the service module that will be discarded before Starliner enters Earth's atmosphere when it returns, “we may never know what the real cause of this is,” said Nappi. He said it was “a great day" for the company, it “was really nail-biting watching that vehicle sit out there for a little while until it was time to come in. So a lot of very happy folks in the Boeing program today because of what we saw," he said, adding that the company is excited to provide NASA with another spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the Space Station. 

The OFT-2 mission is testing Starliner's end-to-end capabilities that will provide valuable data toward NASA certifying it for crewed flights. Starliner delivered about 500 pounds of NASA cargo and crew supplies and more than 300 pounds of Boeing cargo to the ISS.  "Following certification, NASA missions aboard Starliner will carry up to four crew members to the station, enabling the continued expansion of the crew and increasing the amount of science and research that can be performed aboard the orbiting laboratory," the agency stated. Starliner is scheduled to depart from the Space Station on Wednesday, May 25. Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that splashes down in the ocean, Boeing’s Starliner will touchdown in a desert in Western United States. Starliner is expected to return with more than 600 pounds of cargo, including Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System reusable tanks that provide oxygen to astronauts working at the ISS laboratory. The tanks will be refurbished on Earth and launched back to station on a future flight.  

Featured Image Source: NASA/ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti via Twitter

About the Author

Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.

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