Boeing’s Starliner Docks With Space Station for NASA

Once troubleshooting of the problem was completed, a final nudge by the thrusters pushed it into contact with the docking port.

Following a successful return from orbit and landing, Boeing will still have additional work including investigating and fixing the glitches encountered during this flight, It also needs to complete certification of the spacecraft’s parachutes, before NASA approves Starliner for carrying astronauts. An independent safety board overseeing NASA expressed concern last week that Boeing did not have enough people working on the program.

“The panel will be monitoring the situation in the near future to see what impact, if any, this could have on the existence or mitigation of any safety risks,” said David B. West, a member of the safety board.

After a crewed demonstration mission taking two of three NASA astronauts to the space station, Starliner would begin regular operations, taking crews of four to orbit. NASA anticipates that SpaceX and Boeing will each fly one crew mission a year.

However, Boeing will not, in the short term, be able to tap into any non-NASA business as SpaceX has, launching two missions of private citizens to orbit in the past year. For one, Boeing’s vehicle is considerably more expensive. In 2019, the NASA inspector general estimated that NASA is paying $90 million for each Starliner seat while a seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon costs $55 million.

In addition, Boeing does not have access to the rockets needed to fly Starliner missions beyond what NASA requires. Currently, the spacecraft launches on top of an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance. But the Atlas 5 is propelled by Russian-built RD-180 engines. In 2016, Congress decided to require that RD-180s be phased out. Boeing has enough Atlas 5 rockets to fulfill its obligations to NASA — the crewed test flight and six operational flights — but no more.

Starliner can fly on other rockets, including Vulcan, the successor to the Atlas 5. But the Vulcan, which has yet to make its first flight, has not been approved for crewed missions.

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