Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule is finally on its way to the International Space Station, despite a not-so-seamless start to its journey. The spacecraft experienced a malfunction when two thrusters failed to fire.
Starliner, despite the glitch, is still on track to reach the ISS; a backup thruster allowed the spacecraft to perform its intended orbital insertion burn. The reason for the failed propulsion is not yet known.
The Starliner CST-100 spacecraft launched on Thursday at 6:54 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The uncrewed test flight is part of a $4.3 billion contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to develop platforms for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS. The road to the orbiting space station has been rocky for Boeing, while its commercial crew counterpart, SpaceX, has been carrying astronauts to the ISS for the past two years now.
The pressure is on for Boeing to pull off the latest test flight and actually make it to the ISS. “Through adversity, our teams have continued to innovate for the benefit of our nation and all of humanity,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “I look forward to a successful end-to-end test of the Starliner spacecraft, which will help enable missions with astronauts aboard.”
The Starliner capsule launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Roughly 30 minutes after liftoff, one of 12 thrusters responsible for orbital maneuvering malfunctioned after just one second of firing. Its backup thruster then kicked in, firing for about 25 seconds before it malfunctioned as well, Steve Sitch, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said at a post-launch press conference on Thursday. The spacecraft experienced a second minor issue when equipment responsible for cooling the spacecraft took longer than expected to get started. Despite these glitches, the team behind the mission said the capsule remains on track to rendezvous with the ISS at 7:10 p.m. EDT today (watch the docking live here).
During the first Orbital Flight Test (OFT-1) on December 20, 2019, the spacecraft made it to space but a software automation glitch caused it to burn excess fuel and not make it all the way to the ISS. Then, during the subsequent OFT-2 test on August 3, 2021, Starliner never even made it off the launch pad on account of several valves not opening during the countdown.
The latest issues with propulsion system, though described as minor, may come to represent a serious problem for Boeing. Hopefully that’s the last of the glitches and it’s smooth sailing from here, but we’re not holding our breath.