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Boeing Starliner Crew Aboard Space Station After Challenging Docking

Washington: The Boeing Starliner capsule, carrying astronauts for the first time, successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday after overcoming several unexpected challenges, including thruster malfunctions and helium leaks. The spacecraft, named “Calypso,” rendezvoused with the ISS at 1:34 pm ET (1734 GMT) over the southern Indian Ocean. Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams entered the ISS shortly after.

“We’re ready to get to work,” declared Wilmore, while Williams performed a celebratory dance. Both ex-Navy test pilots are on their third mission aboard the ISS.

The docking process faced a delay of over an hour due to initial failures in some of Starliner’s fine maneuvering thrusters, necessitating a “hot fire” to activate them. Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, explained that ground teams need to analyze the issues encountered during the flight.

Wilmore and Williams are the first astronauts to fly the Starliner, which Boeing and NASA aim to certify for regular ISS missions, a role SpaceX has fulfilled for the past four years. The spacecraft launched from Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Wednesday after years of delays, safety concerns, and two recently aborted launches.

Leaks and Thruster Issues

Before launch, a helium leak in Starliner was identified. Though non-combustible, helium pressurizes the propulsion system, and the initial leak was deemed minor. However, two additional leaks occurred during the flight, and a fourth was found after docking, suggesting a common underlying issue rather than isolated faults. Engineering teams are confident that sufficient helium remains for the mission and that the leaks will cease while docked.

Four out of five initially failed thrusters were revived, but the root cause remains unclear. Stich noted that such teething problems are not unusual for new spacecraft, drawing parallels with early issues in the Space Shuttle program and SpaceX’s Dragon in the 2010s.

A Select Club of Spaceships

Starliner is the sixth US-built spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts, following the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the Space Shuttle, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Between 2011 and 2020, the US relied on Russian Soyuz rockets for ISS missions.

Boeing’s program has faced setbacks, including a software bug that caused a bad trajectory on its first uncrewed test and the discovery of flammable electrical tape in the cabin after the second test. A successful mission could help restore confidence in Boeing, which has faced intense scrutiny over safety concerns with its passenger jets.

During their weeklong stay on the ISS, Wilmore and Williams will continue to evaluate Starliner’s systems, including testing its potential as an emergency safe haven. After undocking, Starliner will reenter the atmosphere, with the crew experiencing 3.5G forces as they decelerate from 17,500 mph (28,000 kph) to a gentle landing in the western United States assisted by parachutes and airbags.

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