WASHINGTON | After years of delays and failures, Boeing will try to get back into the race on Thursday by lifting off its Starliner capsule for an empty test flight to the International Space Station, in hopes of finally becoming the second carrier to serve. as a “taxi” for NASA astronauts, along with SpaceX.
Launch is scheduled from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6:54 pm local time. Starliner will be powered by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and will dock with the International Space Station (ISS) approximately 24 hours later.
This test without passengers on board, which must prove that the capsule is safe to later transport humans, had already been tried in 2019. But then it had been on the verge of disaster, and the ship had to return to Earth prematurely without having reached the ISS. .
Then, in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled at the last moment, even before launch, due to a valve problem detected during final checks.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, an aerospace industry newcomer compared to Boeing, passed its own tests and began ferrying NASA astronauts on regular missions. In total, billionaire Elon Musk’s company has already transported 18 astronauts with its own capsule, Dragon, as well as four private passengers on a space tourism mission.
But NASA wants to diversify its options, lest it risks running out of American transportation again, as happened after the shutdown of the space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the US agency was reduced to paying seats on the Russian Soyuz. rockets
Thursday’s launch is “a crucial step for us” toward “two vehicles that carry crews regularly,” Dana Weigel, deputy director of NASA’s ISS program, said at a news conference Tuesday. A fixed price contract has been signed with SpaceX and with Boeing.
On Thursday, only a fool named Rosie will sit in the commander’s seat. It is equipped with about fifteen sensors, intended to collect information about the movements of the structure.
Starliner is also carrying about 230kg of supplies for the station, which orbits at an altitude of about 400km.
The approach to the ISS on Friday, around 23:00 GMT, will be closely watched by astronauts aboard the Station. They will first order the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate contact maneuver. The capsule hatch won’t open until the next day, Saturday.
Starliner must remain attached to the ISS for about five days, before descending back to Earth to land in the desert of the US state of New Mexico, at the White Sands base.
The development of Starliner turned out to be a long saga full of pitfalls.
In 2019, the capsule could not be placed in the correct orbit due to a problem with the clock and had to return to Earth after two days. Boeing later realized that other software problems had nearly 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 flight again, a humidity problem caused a chemical reaction that blocked the opening of certain valves in the capsule. It had to go back to the factory to be inspected, for 10 months.
The problem was solved by hermetically isolating the new valves, in order to prevent the ingress of moisture, Mark Nappi, a Boeing manager, explained Tuesday. But in the future, other longer-term solutions, including a modified design, are on the table.
The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to make a first manned flight by the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be critical to finally gaining approval from NASA.
But the exact timeline will depend on how the capsule performs this week, which at the same time will restore Boeing’s image somewhat, tarnished to say the least by these repeated mishaps.
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