Boeing's Starliner CST-100 on its way to the ISS 2 years late

A couple of thruster failures shouldn't affect the Calamity Capsule's second attempt at reaching space station

Two and a half years after its first disastrous launch, Boeing has once again fired its CST-100 Starliner capsule at the International Space Station.

This time it appeared to go well, launching at 18:54 ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral. The RD-180 main engine and twin solid rocket boosters of the Atlas V performed as planned before Starliner was pushed to near orbital velocity by the Centaur upper stage.

After separation from the Centaur, Starliner fired its own thrusters for orbital insertion and is on course for the ISS. Docking is scheduled for approximately 19:10 ET today (23:10 UTC).

While Boeing was quick to note that the spacecraft's Mission Elapsed Timer (MET) was working properly this time, not everything is behaving as expected. During a post-launch briefing, officials admitted that two of 12 thrusters are not working. One shut down almost immediately, and another stopped seconds later. The spacecraft switched to a third thruster, which performed as expected.

The thrusters are needed for maneuvering and de-orbiting at the end of the mission. Officials confirmed that having 10 out of 12 working meant the mission would be able to proceed. Uncrewed for this second test flight, Starliner is carrying over 500 pounds of supplies to the ISS and will return with 600 pounds on May 25.

It has been a long and tortuous journey for Boeing's Calamity Capsule. The first launch, at the end of 2019, ended with Starliner not troubling the ISS thanks to a timing error that resulted in the spacecraft burning through its attitude control long before reaching the outpost. The capsule returned to Earth quite a bit earlier than planned.

The inevitable investigation found a catalog of errors, and NASA used the dread words "loss of vehicle" in its assessment of what might have happened had engineers on the ground not acted to save the spacecraft.

With so many problems (including the discovery that Boeing hadn't bothered with end-to-end testing) uncovered, and considering the failure to reach the ISS, a decision was taken to repeat the Orbital Flight Test (OFT).

It didn't go well.

The flight was expected last year, but only got as far as the launchpad before balky valves in the spacecraft's service module meant a trip back to the factory was required, taking the mission deep into 2022.

Assuming the mission is a success, the next step will be to stick astronauts into the capsule for the Crewed Flight Test (CFT). Both the current and previous Starliner missions were uncrewed. There's a chance that the first Starliner crew will fly later in 2022, quite some way behind rival SpaceX's crewed debut in 2020. ®

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