Crewed Boeing Starliner successfully docks with the ISS

Boeing Starliner has successfully docked with the ISS, albeit with some last-minute issues. The company’s first crewed test flight to the space station docked at 7:34 PM CAT after missing its initial attempt due to several thrusters malfunctioning. Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams plan to spend the next eight days onboard the ISS before returning to Earth.

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The capsule docked with the ISS in an orbit about 420 kilometres above the Indian Ocean. The pair is now orbiting the planet at approximately 28,000 kph.

“Nice to be attached to the big city in the sky,” Wilmore communicated to mission control in Houston after the successful docking. The capsule carries 345 kg of cargo, including around 136 kg of food and other supplies requested by the four US astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts onboard.

Initially scheduled for 6:15 PM CAT, the docking was delayed after five of Starliner’s 28 reaction control thrusters malfunctioned due to a helium propulsion leak. NASA and Boeing determined that the loss did not compromise the mission, and Wilmore and Williams managed to restart three of the thrusters, providing sufficient redundancy to proceed.

On Wednesday, a small helium leak was detected during liftoff and ascent, followed by the appearance of two more leaks.

These issues highlight Boeing’s challenges in getting its capsules certified for regular flights. Various problems and delays, including orbital flight test issues, valve problems, software glitches, and a faulty parachute system, have plagued Starliner. Boeing’s competitor, SpaceX, reached the ISS for the first time in 2020, around the same time this Starliner mission was originally scheduled to launch.

Boeing is seeking NASA certification to join SpaceX as a regular transportation option to the ISS. NASA aims to have multiple private-sector ferries making routine trips to the space station. Despite Boeing’s difficulties, it may ultimately achieve this goal.