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Update: The Boeing Starliner successfully docks to the ISS for the first time, making it a true contender to SpaceX’s Dragon

Boeing Starliner

Boeing’s Starliner capsule will make another attempt to reach the International Space Station on Thursday, nearly two and a half years after the company’s first mission failed.

Boeing has been working on the Starliner spaceship as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, winning roughly $5 billion in contracts to build it. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which completed development of its Crew Dragon spaceship and is now on its fourth operational human spaceflight for NASA, competes in the program. Over the last three years, Boeing’s Starliner development has hit significant roadblocks.

Its maiden uncrewed flight, the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), ended prematurely in December 2019 due to a software error that caused the capsule to end up in the wrong orbit. Following an inquiry into the matter, NASA stated earlier this year that Boeing’s software development “was an area where we may have not had quite as much insight and oversight as we should have had.”

Boeing attempted to fly the second orbital flight test, or OFT-2, in August, but while the spacecraft was still on the ground, the company detected a propulsion valve problem. After launch-site humidity caused corrosion, thirteen of the 24 oxidizer valves that govern Starliner’s mobility in orbit became stuck, and the spacecraft’s service module was replaced.

Boeing has put a sealant to the valves and plans to attempt another launch of OFT-2 on Thursday at 6:54 p.m. ET.

Boeing vice president Mark Nappi said in a prelaunch press conference that the company “could potentially be ready” for the crewed flight “by the end of this year.” 

UPDATE:

On Friday, May 20, Starliner successfully and autonomously docked itself to the International Space Station (ISS), a day after launching on OFT-2, an uncrewed shakeout mission aimed to show that the capsule is ready to begin delivering astronauts to and from the station for NASA.

Starliner will stay docked with the orbiting lab for four to five days, according to Boeing and NASA. The capsule is set to leave the ISS at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT) on 25th May, Wednesday, with a landing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 6:49 p.m. EDT (2249 GMT) the same day.

The spacecraft will return with more than 600 pounds of cargo, including the reusable tanks of the Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System, which give breathable air to the astronauts on the International Space Station. After being refilled on Earth, the tanks will be returned to the station on a future flight mission.

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