April 19, 2024

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Starliner, America's new “space taxi”, is ready for its first launch

Starliner, America's new “space taxi”, is ready for its first launch

After many delays and technical problems, the new American spacecraft is finally ready for its first launch with astronauts. Sunita Williams And Barry Wilmore The crew was selected to launch the Starliner, developed by the companyBoeing was commissioned by NASA for what would be its first crewed test flight. fate? The International Space Station (ISS), where the two astronauts will spend 10 days.

If there are no new delays. The Starliner spacecraft will lift off from Kennedy Space Center on May 1 From Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. “We're in good shape,” Mark Nappi, vice president of Boeing's Commercial Crew Program, said during the press conference in which they announced the schedule for this ship, which can fly up to seven people to low Earth orbit.

The test comes amid Boeing's crisis over safety problems and accidents involving the company's 737 MAX passenger planes, which prompted CEO Dave Calhoun and President Larry Kellner to take action this week. Submit your resignation.

If the Starliner test is successful, NASA hopes to use this ship as a space taxi starting in 2025 to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station, as it did several years ago with SpaceX's Crew Dragon ship.

Elon Musk's aerospace company was much faster than Boeing in developing its spacecraft because both companies, SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA in 2014 to design and manufacture the ships To transport their astronauts to the International Space Station on the advice of the American agency. For this, Boeing received $4.2 billion in public funding, and SpaceX received $2.6 billion.

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The decision to leave the transportation of NASA astronauts in private hands and award these two companies a multi-million dollar contract to promote the design of the ships was made during the government of Barack Obama and was met with criticism from the US aviation sector. Community. It was also preceded by other controversial action, such as ending the space shuttle program, which until then had been used to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

Illustration of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in space

Obama's idea was that NASA could focus more economic resources on developing its Orion spacecraft – which it intends to reach Mars around 2030, and which is now the centerpiece of the Artemis program to return to the moon. Instead of maintaining the Shuttle program — a ship that was technically very advanced but expensive to maintain and which had also been involved in two accidents, the Columbia and the Challenger — it was decided that transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, which was almost routine, would be routine. To be left in the hands of private companies that will build their own ships.

The problem is Retiring the shuttle would mean relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft To travel to space until SpaceX and Boeing's ships are ready. A period that lasted much longer than expected, because for almost a decade – between 2011 and 2020 – the United States was without its own spacecraft, including a period of maximum tension with Russia, coinciding with the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The last shuttle flew in July 2011. NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX and Boeing to manufacture space taxis in 2014, with the aim of conducting the first manned tests in 2017. But delays have accumulated. SpaceX finally launched crewed flights of its Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, and since then, it has become the regular mode of transportation for NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts, along with Soyuz capsules.

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon has completed dozens of missions to the International Space Station during these four yearsIt is also used to carry out tourist flights and carry private Axiom astronauts – Miguel Lopez Alegría recently returned from his second private mission to the International Space Station aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

However, Boeing has only been able to conduct two tests of the Starliner unmanned vehicle during these ten years.. In the first test, conducted in October 2019, the spacecraft failed to reach the International Space Station and had to return to Earth. The second unmanned test took place in May 2022, and went well, paving the way for preparation for the first manned test. However, this could not be carried out in July 2023 due to several technical problems identified mainly in the parachute and wiring system, as it was discovered that the tape used in different parts of the ship was flammable.

Now the first test with the astronauts has finally arrived. Fuel loading at Kennedy Space Center began on March 18, and according to Mark Nappi, the Atlas V rocket with the assembled Starliner vehicle could already be transported to Launch Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10.

Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Sonny” Williams will command the Starliner spacecraft a pot

For this test, NASA chose two veteran astronauts, both captains in the US Navy who have two spaceflights on their resumes. Sunita Williams joined the space agency in 1998 and traveled to the International Space Station twice aboard the shuttle Discovery and the Soyuz spacecraft. On her first mission, she spent more than six months in space, breaking the residency record for a woman, while her second trip lasted four months. For his part, Barry Wilmore joined NASA in 2000 and in his two flights has accumulated 178 days in space.

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And curiosity is that Sunita Williams was allowed to choose a name for this Starliner ship, which she named Calypso In honor of the research ship of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. In Greek mythology, Calypso is also the daughter of Atlas (the name of the rocket that will put this space taxi into orbit).