The mission began Thursday night with a launch in Florida and the Starliner – which is designed to carry astronauts but flies unmanned for this test – docked with the ISS on Friday night at 8:28 p.m. ET. ΤThe landing occurred about an hour later than expected, as ground crews are resolving a number of issues, including a software issue that has plagued graphics, something that looks like an incorrect GPS map alignment. There were also problems with the sensors and some connectors that initially did not move properly.
The capsule has a connection ring that pops out as it approaches its door and is used to lock in the ISS. At first attempt to connect, some items were not transferred to the correct configuration. Ground teams had to try the pop-out process a second time to find everything in the right place. There was also a small problem with the Starliner cooling loops, which are part of the spacecraft’s temperature control system.
All of these issues needed to be addressed or corrected in a timely manner for Starliner to proceed, and the connection ended without major issues.
“It was really frustrating to watch this vehicle sit out there for a while until it was time to get in,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, told reporters Friday night.
However, the mission raises many other issues with the spacecraft’s onboard propellers, which maneuver and orient this vehicle as it sails through space. Two of these propellers closed prematurely shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit. Some other promoters had problems later.
Despite the setbacks, the spacecraft performed “beautifully,” according to Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which oversees the Starliner as well as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program.
“Of course this is a test flight, and like those who probably watched it all day, you saw that we are learning along the way and it is very exciting,” Stich said in a press conference Friday night.
NASA and Boeing officials have said the launch issues are not a major concern because the Starliner has “many” built-in backups, Stich said. There are 48 such launchers in the vehicle and the built-in capsule computers can choose to use one launcher over another if it detects something slightly off.
Although Boeing wants to know why the launchers did not work as planned, according to Nappi, it may not happen.
“We may never know the real cause,” he said.
The engineers reduced the problems with the propeller to “six or seven” possible causes, with three seeming more likely. Zeroing in on the exact issue may require engineers to see the propellers in person, which can not happen because the propellers are attached to the service unit – a part that will be discarded and left to burn in the air before the Starliner does the controlled his return to Earth.
This is expected to happen in the coming days. The Starliner will disengage from the ISS, maneuver home, and then use its propellers to cut back into the thick part of the Earth’s atmosphere before parachuting into a landing in the New Mexico desert.
If all goes well, it will be a huge victory for Boeing, which is coming from years of delays and stagnation with Starliner.
The spacecraft’s first attempt to complete an orbital test mission in 2019 had to be returned prematurely from space, without completing the ISS connection, due to software problems. A second attempt to launch the Starliner into the ISS in August last year was canceled after pre-flight inspections revealed problems with the main valves stuck.
If this mission is completed safely, the Boeing Starliner could launch astronauts by the end of 2022.