Boeing Starliner’s crew is now on the space station after encountering new issues en route

Boeing’s Starliner mission successfully docked with the International Space Station, allowing NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to safely arrive at the station. Despite encountering new issues along the way, the crew overcame them and reached the orbiting laboratory. Notably, this marks the first time that astronauts have reached the space station using a Boeing Starliner spacecraft.

The docking took place at 1:34 p.m. ET, followed by additional measures to ensure a secure connection between Starliner and the space station’s port. Approximately 20 minutes later, the docking process was completed. Wilmore expressed his delight, stating, “Nice to be attached to the big city in the sky,” once the docking was confirmed.

To establish equilibrium, pressure was equalized between Starliner and the station. Subsequently, the hatch connecting the two was opened at around 3:46 p.m. ET.
Upon their arrival, Wilmore and Williams were greeted warmly by the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already on board, with a ringing bell and plenty of hugs. With their addition, the total number of people working and living on the International Space Station (ISS) has now reached nine.

During the welcoming remarks, Wilmore expressed his appreciation for the warm welcome, stating, “I’m not sure we could have asked for a better reception. There was music, and Matt even danced. It was a fantastic experience to be back here.” He also extended his gratitude to those who supported their mission, including NASA mission control, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance, emphasizing their exceptional teamwork.

Williams also expressed her gratitude to their family and friends who stood by them throughout the preparation for launch.
“We are thrilled to have another family up here,” Williams expressed enthusiastically. “Being in space, first on the Starliner and then at the International Space Station, is an incredible experience. It doesn’t get much better than this.”

During a news conference on Thursday, Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator, remarked, “The successful launch and docking of the Starliner yesterday and today sets it on a path towards certification, enabling further exploration and scientific advancements for the benefit of humanity.”

Free also expressed his gratitude towards Butch and Suni for their dedication and expertise in advancing human spaceflight. He acknowledged the years they have invested in reaching this point.

Over the next eight days, the duo will conduct experiments and carry out tasks on the orbiting laboratory.
According to Jeff Arend, manager for systems engineering and integration in NASA’s International Space Station Office, the crew has brought a replacement pump to the station that is crucial for processing urine and converting it into drinking water. The new pump will be installed tomorrow.

Boeing’s Starliner mission, which had been in development for a decade, faced delays due to helium leaks and a temporary loss of thrusters during its journey to the space station, as reported by NASA. In the final hour of approaching the space station, the crew of the Starliner manually piloted the spacecraft to test its manual flight control capability. Five thrusters in the reaction control system failed on the service module, but after conducting hot-fire tests, they were able to get four of the thrusters functioning again.
As the spacecraft approaches the space station, it utilizes smaller thrusters to make more precise adjustments to its trajectory. These thrusters, totaling 28 in number, are located on the service module, which will not return to Earth.

Due to an issue with the thrusters, the expected docking time of Starliner at the space station was delayed by an hour and 15 minutes. As a result, the mission had to be rescheduled for a new docking window.

During the testing phase, Starliner maintained a distance of approximately 820 feet (250 meters) from the space station until it was determined to be in a safe orbit. This distance was kept beyond a 656-foot (200-meter) invisible boundary, known as the “keep out” zone, which is designed to protect the space station.
“We have yet to fully comprehend the exact reason for the loss of the jets,” stated Steve Stich, the manager overseeing NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. He further explained that the software identifies certain discrepancies in the thruster’s performance, such as a slight decrease in thrust or an inadequate thrust rise rate, prompting it to disengage that particular thruster.

Mark Nappi, the vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, stated that the team will continue to analyze the data related to the software’s decision to deselect the thrusters when they failed to meet specific criteria.

During the Starliner’s journey, it also encountered another issue: helium leaks. NASA confirmed on X (formerly known as Twitter) late on Wednesday that two additional helium leaks were detected on the vehicle. Prior to launch, one helium leak had already been identified and deemed acceptable.
According to Boeing, helium is utilized in spacecraft thruster systems to facilitate firing, and it is neither combustible nor toxic.

According to a live NASA broadcast on Thursday morning, two out of the three leaks have been successfully addressed. Additionally, a minor fourth leak was discovered later, as stated by Stich.

The broadcast mentioned that mission managers gave the green light for rendezvous and docking with the space station, and the leaks were not anticipated to have any impact on the docking process.

Boeing aerospace engineer Jim May confirmed on Thursday morning, through a social media post on X shared by Boeing, that during all of Starliner’s rendezvous and proximity operations, the propellant manifolds will remain open until docking. He also assured that Starliner currently has sufficient reserves of helium.

In relation to the helium leak, May emphasized that it does not pose any safety risks to the crew, the vehicle, or the mission.
NASA has reported that the flight control team is closely monitoring the leak rates in Starliner’s propulsion system. After docking, all of Starliner’s manifolds were closed as per normal procedures, and currently, there are no active leaks. The team will now analyze the leak rate and determine the appropriate actions for the rest of the mission. They have confidence in their ability to manage the situation and will take the necessary time to assess it before undocking and landing. According to Nappi, there could potentially be a common cause for the leaks, such as faulty seals or other variables related to the flange itself.
Stich mentioned that the challenges faced by the Starliner are similar to those encountered during the first crewed flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and other test flights of human-rated spacecraft. Nappi added that the two main issues with the vehicle are a helium leak and the need to fine tune the thrusters. However, he believes these problems are relatively minor and can be resolved for the next mission, so they are not significant.

During the night, mission control notified Wilmore and Williams to close two valves in response to the newly discovered helium leaks, just as they were about to go to sleep on Wednesday.
NASA reported that three helium leaks have been identified on the spacecraft. One of these leaks was already discussed before the flight, along with a management plan. The other two leaks were discovered after the spacecraft arrived in orbit. To address the issue, two of the affected helium valves have been closed, resulting in the spacecraft remaining stable.

During a NASA broadcast, mission control informed the astronauts about the newly discovered helium leaks. They then guided the crew on the procedure to shut down the valves. When asked for further information, mission control apologized for not having all the details yet. The astronauts expressed their readiness to understand the situation regarding the additional helium leak.
NASA and Boeing confirmed the crew’s safety and instructed them to sleep while further analyzing the data. Originally scheduled for a nine-hour rest, an hour of sleep was sacrificed due to the troubleshooting efforts.

During the NASA broadcast, Boeing aerospace engineer Brandon Burroughs reassured that the ground team would closely monitor the overnight helium leaks and that the vehicle’s current configuration allowed for safe flight.

The long-awaited launch of Starliner took place on Wednesday at 10:52 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This momentous event marked the spacecraft’s inaugural crewed mission.
Boeing’s Crew Flight Test is the result of their efforts to create a spacecraft that can compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and provide the United States with more options for transporting astronauts to the space station through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. This program aims to promote collaboration with private industry partners.

During a news conference in May, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson highlighted that this flight is only the sixth inaugural journey of a crewed spacecraft in the history of the United States. He mentioned the previous missions, including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle, and SpaceX’s Dragon, and now, Boeing’s Starliner.

This mission also made history by having the first woman, Williams, fly on board a crewed spacecraft.
After the successful launch, Nelson expressed his appreciation for the NASA team’s perseverance in overcoming challenges. He emphasized that NASA prioritizes safety and will only launch when everything is in order.

Following the launch, NASA officials revealed that Williams and Wilmore might have an extended stay on the space station, with the earliest possible landing date being June 14th. However, Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, cautioned against placing too much emphasis on this date. He explained that several conditions need to be met before the Starliner can return home, and NASA will wait until all objectives are accomplished and the conditions are favorable.
After weeks of investigating and resolving various problems, the previous attempts to launch a crewed mission on May 6 and June 1 had to be canceled.

On May 6, just two hours before the scheduled launch, engineers discovered an issue with a valve on the upper part of the Atlas V rocket, which was manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As a result, the entire rocket and spacecraft were rolled back from the launchpad for further testing and repairs.

Additionally, the teams encountered a minor helium leak in the spacecraft service module and identified a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system. However, after addressing and troubleshooting the initial helium leak in May, experts determined that it did not pose a threat to the mission. During the launch countdown on the morning of the next attempt, the teams closely monitored the leak and confirmed that it did not present any issues.
The Starliner launch was just a few minutes away from liftoff on Saturday when an automatic hold was triggered by the ground launch sequencer, which is the computer responsible for launching the rocket.

Over the weekend, technicians and engineers from United Launch Alliance examined the ground support equipment, specifically three large computers housed in a shelter at the launchpad. These computers, all identical, provide triple redundancy to ensure the safe launch of crewed missions.

After careful assessment, the engineers determined that the issue that caused the launch hold was due to a power supply problem in one of the computers. This power supply was responsible for providing power to the computer cards that manage important countdown events. As a solution, the faulty computer was removed and replaced with a spare.

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