Boeing’s Starliner Makes It to ISS Battling New Leaks, Busted Thrusters

June 7, 2024
The point of the Crew Flight Test mission is so Boeing can join SpaceX as one of two companies providing regular ferry service to and from the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, something meant to end NASA’s reliance on Russia’s Soyuz flights after the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Boeing’s Starliner sprung two new leaks in its propulsion system after launch from Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, and lost power to some of its thrusters as it approached the International Space Station, but it was still able to dock safely Thursday with a pair of NASA astronauts along for the ride.

Making its first human spaceflight, Starliner made an autonomous approach after missing the first docking opportunity but making contact with the ISS at 1:34 p.m. EDT traveling at more than 17,500 mph.

The spacecraft was secured to the station’s node 2 forward port. The hatch opened just over two hours later. That will let Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams join the seven members of Expedition 71 already on board the ISS.

“We’ve all been waiting a little while for this call,” said ISS crew member and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick, a fellow Navy astronaut like Wilmore and Williams. “That was an OK, 3-wire, ‘Fly Navy’ docking complete,” referencing the preferred wire number naval aviators are supposed to catch when landing on an aircraft carrier.

“OK, indeed,” replied Wilmore. “Nice to be attached to the big kitty in the sky.”

The ISS flight control team in Houston added, “Congratulations to all the NASA and Boeing teams on this historic day. Butch and Suni, nicely done. Welcome back to the ISS.”

The duo are in the midst of the Crew Flight Test mission that launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Wednesday. They will spend about eight days on board the station before returning to Earth with a desert landing in the southwestern United States.

The trip to the station had its share of concerns after launch, first when teams identified two new helium leaks on top of one already known by mission managers ahead of launch.

Two of the three leaking valves were closed Wednesday night and the spacecraft remained stable, according to NASA. The pair went to sleep overnight knowing about the leaks, but they were top-of-mind when they awoke at 4:30 a.m.

“Actually, umm, we’re kind of curious where we stand as far as our leaks. If we could get a summary on that, that would be wonderful,” Wilmore said.

“Regarding the leaks we spoke of last night, the big picture is the current leak rates are, we are going to be able to support a rendezvous today with that,” replied the NASA capsule communications officer Rob Hayhurst from Houston.

NASA and Boeing’s propellant team worked to increase pressure on parts of the propulsion system so the NASA astronauts would have adequate use of the engine jets to perform the planned test maneuvers before docking.

The helium leak known of before launch was the subject of several days of delay as teams determined the safety of the astronauts even if the leak got worse. Teams also worked through potential landing procedures if leaks were to spring up on more of the engines on the propulsion module to ensure Starliner could make it back to Earth.

Their arrival was originally slated for 12:15 p.m., but issues with four of the 28 reaction control system thrusters used for minor movement on the propulsion service module delayed the final approach. After refiring the thrusters several times, all but one came back online, allowing for the Starliner’s docking on the next available opportunity a little more than an hour later.

While the leaks and thruster issues provided some headaches, Wilmore and Williams were able to manually control Starliner during a series of tests since launch, part of the mission profile to prove the spacecraft, along with making sure its life-support systems work properly. While on board the ISS, they will also verify that Starliner can act as a lifeboat for a full ISS crew in case of an issue with the space station. And they will try out more manual maneuvers on the return home.

The ISS population now increases temporarily to nine. That includes the four members of SpaceX’s Crew-8 that flew up to the station in February on the Crew Dragon Endeavour.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing two U.S. vehicles at the International Space Station,” said Ken Bowersox, the associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate during a post-launch press conference Wednesday. “I know Butch and Suni will probably get a kick out of that, if they get a chance, to look out the windows and see a Dragon there, see a Starliner there. It’s something that I think all of us should be proud of.”

The point of the CFT mission is so Boeing can join SpaceX as one of two companies providing regular ferry service to and from the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, something meant to end NASA’s reliance on Russia’s Soyuz flights after the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

SpaceX achieved that first beginning in May 2020, and has been handling the U.S.-based launches for that program for four years already having flown its fleet of Crew Dragon spacecraft 13 times carrying 50 humans to space.

Boeing, now, though, looks to complete the CFT so Starliner can be certified for its contracted six rotational missions to the ISS that could begin as early as February 2025.

“This is a test flight,” said Boeing’s Mark Nappi, the company’s commercial crew program lead. “We’re going to probably experience a few things that we’ve got to go look into, and we’ll do that and we’ll talk to you about them as time goes on. But we’re going to learn from this, and we’re going to have a great experience. We’re on orbit with Butch and Suni, and it’s been a long time coming and we’re really, really proud of the team that got us here.”


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