Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have opened the hatch of the recently docked Boeing Starliner, effectively ending a streak of misfortunes over the years for the spacecraft.
The successful test mission helps to secure a second commercial carrier for shuttling astronauts to and from the space station. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon completed the same test in 2019 and has since taken 18 astronauts to the destination about 250 miles above Earth.
No longer serviced by its own shuttle program, NASA relied on Russian rockets after 2011 to get crew into space. That period ended in 2020 when SpaceX took over that responsibility, but the U.S. space agency has been without any backup, which wasn’t the original plan.
“The journey has been hard, but the reward … is the first of many that will continue for years to come,” NASA astronaut Bob Hines said during a live broadcast. “No one goes to space alone, and we can all benefit from the efforts involved.”
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Last time the Starliner attempted this spaceflight three years ago, it didn’t make it to the station. A software glitch caused it to instead travel onto the wrong preliminary orbit. The spacecraft spent two days in space before landing at the Army’s White Sands missile range in New Mexico. It was apparently the first time a U.S.-made spacecraft meant for human transportation actually landed on land rather than splashed down in the ocean.
Since then Boeing has made up to $600 million in repairs and “do-over” costs, according to Associated Press reports.
Starliner’s launch was free of those major errors Thursday when it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, just before 7 p.m. ET, though it did experience some thruster issues. The spacecraft was blasted into space with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA
The thruster surprises didn’t prevent the capsule from docking at the station a day later, and astronauts were able to go inside to check out the spacecraft at about 11:30 a.m. ET Saturday. Hines became the first human to enter Starliner in outer space.
“This is a momentous day in NASA’s history and just paving the way for the future as we start enabling commercial flights here in low-Earth orbit while NASA pivots to the moon and eventually onto Mars,” Hines said.
Starliner missions will have the ability to take up to four astronauts to the station at a time, expanding NASA’s potential crew capacity and increasing the amount of research at the orbiting lab. As of Saturday, there were three spacecraft parked at the station: Starliner, a Russian Soyuz capsule, and a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
“This is a momentous day in NASA’s history and just paving the way for the future as we start enabling commercial flights here in low-Earth orbit while NASA pivots to the moon and eventually onto Mars.”
Credit: NASA live broadcast
Starliner’s test mission did not take any crew up to the space station this time, but it was flying with a manikin (or perhaps womanikin?), dubbed Rosie the Rocketeer. Rosie wore a blue flight suit and red polka-dot mask and bandana made by Mae Krier, a former Boeing “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II. The purpose of the human simulator was to collect data on cabin conditions during the journey.
“It’s nice to see the fruits of her labor be able to go up to space, too,” a Boeing broadcaster said.
Space station crew will unpack food and other supplies from the spacecraft and load it up with about 600 pounds of cargo, including lab experiments, to return to Earth. It’s expected to land in New Mexico next Wednesday.