Starliner: Boeing spacecraft launches to ISS despite thruster issue

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At the moment, only SpaceX is able to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil, but Boeing hopes to change that with an uncrewed test of its Starliner spacecraft

Space



18 May 2022
, updated 20 May 2022

Starliner launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida

(NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS), despite an issue with its thrusters. The uncrewed test mission, if successful, will mark an important step in expanding the capability for sending astronauts to orbit from US soil – something only SpaceX can do at the moment.

The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the ISS at 23.10 GMT on Friday, almost 24 hours after it took off at 22.54 GMT on Thursday 19 May from Cape Canaveral in Florida on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

While the launch was successful, two onboard thrusters out of 12 failed as Starliner manoeuvred into orbit. However, the malfunction is unlikely to be a major issue, as backup thrusters ensured the spacecraft could continue on its way.

“The system is designed to be redundant, and it performed like it was supposed to,” said commercial crew manager Mark Nappi at a press conference on 19 May. “We have a safe vehicle, and we’re on our way to the International Space Station.”

The spacecraft has had a troubled past. In 2019, it was unable to reach the ISS after a faulty clock meant the rocket’s boosters failed to properly fire after lift-off. In 2021, just hours before another scheduled launch, pre-flight checks revealed corroded valves that required repair, and the launch was postponed until 19 May.

“Getting any new spacecraft into space is always challenging,” says Libby Jackson at the UK Space Agency. “[Space companies] do testing to find out the problems, so I’m very confident that Boeing have looked through all of those – they’re not going to the launch pad without being confident that they are in a good place to test.”

If Starliner manages to reach the ISS on Friday, it will join SpaceX as the second commercial outfit capable of flying US astronauts to space, with Starliner’s first crewed launch pencilled in for later this year. SpaceX first flew two astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon capsule in May 2020 and has since flown eight more astronauts to the ISS on a further two missions.

In 2018, when Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft was the only way to get to the ISS, a rocket malfunction meant astronauts risked being stranded on the station while the issue was investigated. Part of the reason for NASA encouraging the commercial spacecraft sector was to avoid relying on Russia, an issue that has become more pressing since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“To have two different ways of getting into space will mean that, should there be problems on either one, they have another means to get there,” says Jackson. “That’s really important for ensuring that we have continued and safe operations of the International Space Station.”

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