Boeing Starliner docks with ISS marking NASA's first simultaneous use of two crew vehicles

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The uncrewed Boeing Starliner capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station for the first time Friday evening, a long-awaited milestone for a capsule that had fallen far behind its SpaceX Crew Dragon counterpart.

The docking occurred nearly 26 hours after Starliner's liftoff aboard an Atlas V rocket from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Boeing and NASA teams on the ground in Houston worked in conjunction with NASA astronauts aboard the ISS to send commands to the capsule and eventually guide it in for docking at 8:28 p.m.

More from the mission: Boeing Starliner experiences thruster failure in orbit, but week-long ISS mission proceeds

Liftoff! ULA's Atlas V rocket launches Boeing's Starliner to the space station for NASA

For the first time, both astronaut capsules of NASA's Commercial Crew Program -- Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon -- are simultaneously docked with the space station.

The Orbital Flight Test 2 mission is an uncrewed demonstration flight that has been delayed for years as a part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, the $8 billion venture to develop the Starliner and Crew Dragon.

NASA invested in two companies to develop astronaut capsules to ensure a system of redundancy for crew transportation in an effort to move away from solely relying on Russia to transport its astronauts on Soyuz capsules at $90 million a seat.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon has been in constant operation transporting a total of 18 astronauts to and from the ISS since its first crewed demonstration flight in May 2020. The Starliner, in contrast, experienced a series of setbacks including an aborted mission in 2019, adding years of delays and costing the company over half a billion dollars to rectify.

Friday's rendezvous and docking process took about five hours to complete once the capsule caught up with the space station after chasing it for nearly 21 hours.

Upon Starliner's docking, NASA astronaut Bob Hines offered words of congratulations to the joint Boeing and NASA teams, "The crew of Expedition 67 would like to offer our congratulations on this momentous occasion. Today marks a great milestone, providing additional commercial access to low Earth orbit, sustaining the ISS, and enabling NASA's goal of returning humans to the moon and eventually to Mars."

A screen capture of the Boeing Starliner capsule docked for the first time to the International Space Station during NASA's Commercial Crew Program OFT-2 mission.
A screen capture of the Boeing Starliner capsule docked for the first time to the International Space Station during NASA's Commercial Crew Program OFT-2 mission.

Shortly after Satarliner separated from its ULA Atlas V booster on Thursday, two of the 12 thrusters on the backside of the capsule failed to work perfectly. A third thruster was able to pick up the slack and perform correctly for the remainder of the maneuver.

A cooling system on board the capsule also performed slightly out of expectation on the way to the ISS. The issues with the capsule, however, did not impact its capability to proceed with the mission.

Furthermore, an issue with the NASA docking system on Starliner caused an additional thirty-minute delay Friday. Starliner controllers on the ground in Houston had to retract the docking mechanism to reset it before a docking attempt with the space station.

Starliner will remain attached to the space station for the next five days before returning for a parachute-assisted landing in New Mexico at the Army's White Sands Missile Range.

On Saturday, NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines of NASA's SpaceX Crew-4 mission who assisted Boeing and NASA teams with the Starliner's approach and docking will open the hatches between the space station and the capsule to unload about 800 pounds of cargo.

In this illustration, a SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner spacecraft approach the International Space Station. NASA is partnering with Boeing and SpaceX to build a new generation of human-rated spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to the station and expanding research opportunities in orbit.
In this illustration, a SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner spacecraft approach the International Space Station. NASA is partnering with Boeing and SpaceX to build a new generation of human-rated spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to the station and expanding research opportunities in orbit.

Even with the successful docking under its belt, Boeing still has many issues to work out with Starliner before astronauts will fly on it.

The final hurdle that Starliner needs to clear before NASA certifies it as a human-rated spacecraft will come as the Crewed Flight Test. That mission is set to occur sometime before mid-2023 and will carry two or three NASA astronauts to the space station and back.

Once the OFT-2 Starliner lands in New Mexico sometime next week it will be transported back to Boeing's factory at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The company will spend the next several months processing the capsule and developing long-term solutions to the issues that were encountered during the OFT-2 mission to prepare for the highly-anticipated first crewed mission.

Jamie Groh is a space reporter for Florida Today. You can contact her at JGroh@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Boeing's Starliner docks with ISS for first time during OFT-2 mission

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