After years of failures and delays, US aviation giant Boeing will try to return to competition with SpaceX to serve as a space taxi for NASA, with the Starliner capsule taking off on Thursday, May 19, for a test flight directed towards the International Space Station (ISS).
The launch took place from the base in Cape Canaveral (Florida, southeastern United States). The Starliner is powered by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, and will dock with the International Space Station about 24 hours later.
This unmanned test flight aims to determine if the capsule will later be able to carry humans. He was already subjected to a failed temptation in 2019, when the ship was forced to return to land early, avoiding disaster in the extreme.
Then, in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled shortly before launch, due to a valve problem discovered during the final test checks.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, a nascent aerospace industry compared to giant Boeing, passed its own tests and began flying NASA astronauts on regular missions.
In total, billionaire Elon Musk’s company has already flown 18 astronauts with its own capsule, the Dragon, as well as four private passengers who have paid tickets to participate in a space tourism mission.
However, NASA wants to diversify its options, so as not to run the risk of running out of American-flagged transportation again, as happened after the closure of space shuttle missions in 2011. Until the advent of SpaceX, the space agency had to pay for the crew seats of Russia’s Soyuz rockets .
Thursday’s launch is a “critical step for us” toward “two vehicles that carry crews on a regular basis,” Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy program manager for the International Space Station, said at a press conference Tuesday. He confirmed that a fixed-price contract was signed with both SpaceX and Boeing.
At rehearsal on Thursday, a doll named Rosie will be placed in the captain’s seat. It is equipped with about 15 sensors that are intended to collect information about the movements of the chassis.
Starliner also carries about 230 kilograms of supplies destined for the station, which orbits about 400 kilometers above Earth.
The approach of the International Space Station on Friday, around 11:00 p.m. GMT (5 p.m. Costa Rica time), will be followed by astronauts aboard the International Station. They will first require the capsule to settle about 250 metres, before proceeding with a precision landing and mooring maneuver. The capsule slot won’t open until the next day, Saturday.
The Starliner must remain attached to the International Space Station for about five days, before returning to Earth to land in the desert of New Mexico, in the western United States, at White Sands Base.
The development of the Starliner project turned out to be a long saga fraught with obstacles.
In 2019, the capsule was not placed in the correct orbit due to a problem with its watch and had to return to Earth two days later. Boeing later found out that other software issues had almost caused a serious flight malfunction.
NASA has put together a long list of recommendations and modifications to be made.
Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad for a new launch test, a moisture problem caused a chemical reaction that prevented some valves from opening in the capsule. He had to return to the workshops for inspection for 10 months.
The problem was resolved by insulating the new valves tightly, in order to prevent moisture from entering, Boeing CEO Mark Naby explained on Tuesday. But in the future, other long-term solutions, including a modified design, are already being analyzed by experts.
The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to make its first manned flight by the end of the year. This second test mission will be crucial to finally obtain approval from NASA.
But the exact timetable will depend on how the capsule performs this week, which at the same time may restore some of Boeing’s image, which has been tarnished somewhat by frequent setbacks.
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