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NASA’s Starliner capsule docks to space station after thruster trouble

NASA TV

Boeing's new capsule arrived at the International Space Station on Thursday, delayed by last-minute thruster trouble that almost derailed the docking for this first test flight with astronauts. The 260-mile-high linkup over the Indian Ocean culminated more than a day of continuing drama for Boeing's astronaut flight debut carrying NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams.

Boeing plans to keep Starliner at the space station for at least eight days before guiding it to a landing in the western U.S. "Nice to be attached to the big city in the sky," Wilmore said once the hooks between the two spacecraft were tight. ISS astronaut Tracy Caldwell-Dyson waved enthusiastically through the opening in the docking hatch separating the two spacecraft. Dyson and Williams are both members of NASA’s astronaut class of 1998, nicknamed“the Penguins.”

The Starliner capsule already had one small helium leak when it rocketed into orbit, aboard an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket, with two NASA astronauts Wednesday. Boeing and NASA managers were confident they could manage the propulsion system despite the problem and that more leaks were unlikely. But just hours into the flight, two more leaks cropped up.

Later, four of the capsule's twenty eight thrusters went down. The astronauts managed to restart three of them, providing enough safety margin to proceed. By then, Starliner had passed up the first docking opportunity and circled the world for an extra hour alongside the station before moving in.

It was not immediately known whether the thrusters problems were related to the earlier leaks. Earlier in the day, before the thrusters malfunctioned, Boeing spokesman Jim May said the helium leaks posed no safety issues for the astronauts or the mission.

Helium is used to pressurize the fuel lines of Starliner's thrusters, which are essential for maneuvering. Before liftoff, engineers devised a plan to work around any additional leaks in the system. A faulty rubber seal, no bigger than a shirt button, is believed responsible for the original leak.

After the space shuttles retired, NASA hired Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX's taxi service began in 2020. Boeing was supposed to start around the same time, but was held up for years by safety concerns and other troubles.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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