After years of delays and failures, Boeing’s space capsule, Starliner, lifted off Thursday evening May 19 from Florida for an empty test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), hoping to finally become the second company to serve as a “taxi” for NASA astronauts in the future, after SpaceX.
The capsule was placed on the correct course, but two of the 12 thrusters normally used for the maneuver failed, NASA officials told a news conference. This problem should not affect the mission, however, they assured. “The teams are working to understand why we had these anomalies”said Mark Nappi, head of the manned space program at Boeing. “We have a safe vehicle and we are on our way to the International Space Station”he added.
A first test without a passenger on board had already been attempted in 2019. But it had come close to disaster; the ship must have returned to Earth prematurely without having reached the ISS.
Then, in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled at the very last moment, even before the launch, due to a valve problem detected during the final checks.
A delay train on SpaceX
Meanwhile, SpaceX, a relative newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, passed its own tests and began carrying NASA astronauts on regular missions. In all, billionaire Elon Musk’s company has already transported eighteen with its own capsule, Dragon, as well as four private passengers on a space tourism mission.
But NASA wants to diversify its options, so as not to risk finding itself without means of transport, as was the case after the shutdown of space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the American agency was, in effect, reduced to paying for seats in Russian Soyuz rockets. Thursday’s launch is “a crucial step for us”to have “two vehicles regularly transporting crews”, recalled at a press conference on Tuesday, Dana Weigel, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA. A fixed price contract was made with SpaceX, just like with Boeing.
A litmus test
On Thursday, only a dummy named Rosie sat in the commander’s seat. It is equipped with about fifteen sensors, intended to collect information on the movements of the structure. Starliner is also carrying about 230 kg of supplies for the station, which orbits at an altitude of about 400 kilometers.
The approach, on the night of Friday to Saturday, around 1 a.m. (Paris time) will be closely followed by the astronauts on board the ISS. They will first command the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of contact. The capsule hatch won’t be opened until the next day, Saturday. Starliner must remain docked to the ISS for about five days, before descending to Earth to land in the desert of the US state of New Mexico, on the basis of White Sands.
The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to be able to carry out a first manned flight by the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be essential to finally obtain approval from NASA.
The development of Starliner turned out to be a long epic strewn with pitfalls. In 2019, the capsule could not be placed in the correct orbit due to a clock problem, and had to return to Earth after two days. Boeing then realized that other software problems had almost caused a serious flight anomaly. NASA had prescribed a long list of recommendations and modifications to be made.
Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad to attempt the flight again, a humidity problem had caused a chemical reaction preventing the opening of certain valves of the capsule. She had had to return to the factory for inspection, for ten months. The problem was solved by hermetically isolating the new valves, in order to prevent moisture from entering, explained, Tuesday, Mark Nappi, manager at Boeing. But other longer-term solutions, including a modified design, are being studied.
The performance of the capsule will be scrutinized this week, and will have to restore the image of Boeing, tarnished by these repeated setbacks.
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