Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft finally reached orbit Thursday on its way to docking with the International Space Station, completing a major step after two previous failed attempts that became part of the company’s many woes and a symbol of its fall from grace.
Officials remained optimistic that the problem will not disrupt the mission. The craft has only a few major thruster firings left on its way to the station. And once Starliner gets closer, it will use smaller thrusters to adjust its position for docking. It would use the larger thrusters again once it departs the station to deorbit on its return to Earth, but that, too, should not pose a problem, said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.
Meanwhile, engineers on the ground will investigate why the thrusters failed. They’re “trying to understand what happened and put a plan together to see if they could recover the thrusters,” Stich said.
“The system is designed to be redundant, and it performed like it was supposed to,” said Mark Nappi, a Boeing vice president who oversees the Starliner program. “And now the team is working the why we had those anomalies occur.”
He added: “The spacecraft is in excellent condition. … Today feels really good, and we have a lot of confidence in the vehicle.”
The flight is a test for Boeing to demonstrate that its autonomous capsule can meet up with the station and then park itself. Thursday’s flight was a test of the spacecraft without any people on board. If the mission goes well, Boeing would later begin to start flying NASA astronauts.
Word of the thruster failures came after the spacecraft successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 6:54 p.m. aboard an Atlas V rocket, lighting up the skies over the Florida Space Coast.
The capsule still needs to catch up with the space station, flying in orbit at 17,500 mph. Then it needs to edge closer and closer to the station, pausing at various increments to make sure it is correctly positioned. Then NASA would give it the green light to dock.
The return is a big test as well. Starliner would undock from the station after a few days, then come hurtling through the thickening atmosphere while generating temperatures of about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat shield has to hold. The parachutes have to work to slow it down for landing. As do the air bags that Starliner deploys to ensure a soft touch down at one of the remote landing sites in has chosen in the western United States.
“It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it’s just the beginning,” Brandi Dean, a NASA spokesperson, said on the online broadcast of the launch.
But while NASA and Boeing were cheering, saying the launch was a major relief and a much-needed win, it was still just a first step. There is a long road ahead.
“We’re going to take this one step at a time,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, told reporters before the flight. “We’re going to use this as learning for us and then be able to fly our crews.”
Boeing had tried and failed on two previous attempts to perform the uncrewed test flight to the space station.
The first flight attempt, in December 2019, went awry because of a major software problem. The capsule’s onboard clock was 11 hours off. Ground controllers struggled to communicate with the spacecraft and had to end the mission without docking with the space station.
Boeing spent some 18 months fixing the software issues, going through all 1 million lines of code and investigating the problem alongside NASA. Finally, the spacecraft returned to the launchpad in July 2021, but hours before launch, engineers discovered that 13 valves in the service module could not be opened.
Boeing and NASA said they had resolved the issue and were ready to fly again.
After the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA looked to the private sector to fly cargo and supplies and then eventually its astronauts to the space station. In 2014, it awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of flying astronauts under its commercial crew program. Initially, most in the space industry expected Boeing to fly first because of its long heritage in spaceflight. But SpaceX launched its first test flight in March 2019, flew its first crewed mission in 2020 and has flown several more since then.
Despite Boeing’s problems, NASA officials have expressed confidence in the company and its capsule.
Speaking to reporters before the flight, NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore said he and his fellow astronauts assigned to the Starliner flights “wouldn’t be here right now if we weren’t confident that this would be a successful mission. But as you mentioned, there are always unknown unknowns. That’s what historically has always gotten us. It’s those things that we don’t know about, and we don’t expect.”
Still, he added: “We’re ready.”
Suni Williams, another NASA astronaut who could fly on one of Starliner’s first flights, acknowledged “there’s a lot of work ahead of us before we get to the crewed flight. But we’re champing at the bit. We’re ready for the spacecraft to go to the space station, be really successful, come back, have a nice soft landing. And then we’ll be ready for the work.”