After setbacks, Boeing capsule finally en route to space station for its test flight

The launch took place this Thursday, May 19, from Cap Canaveral at 6:54 p.m. local time (00:54 am, French time, Friday). Starliner was propelled by an Atlas V rocket and must be moving to the space station (ISS) about 24 hours later.

Le Monde with AFP

After years of delay and chess, the Boeing space capsule, Starliner, took off Thursday evening from Florida for an empty test flight towards the international space station, in the hope of Finally become the second company to serve in the future of “taxi” for the astronauts of NASA, after SpaceX. This test without passengers on board, which must prove that the capsule is sure and then transporting humans, had already been tempted in 2019. But it had then come close to the 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 very last moment, even before launching, because of a problem of valves detected during the final verifications.

a delayer on spacex

Meanwhile, SpaceX, however new to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has successfully completed its own tests, and began to transport NASA astronauts during regular missions. In all, the company of the billionaire Elon Musk has already sent 18 astronauts with its own capsule, Dragon, as well as four private passengers during a space tourism mission.

But NASA wishes to diversify its options, in order to never risk being without an American means of transport again, as after stopping space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the American agency was indeed Reduced to pay for places in the Russian Soyuz rockets. The launch of Thursday is “a crucial stage for us” towards “two vehicles regularly carrying crews”, recalled at a press conference on Tuesday Dana Weigel, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA. A fixed price contract was passed with SpaceX as well as with Boeing.

a decisive test

Thursday, only a model named Rosie was seated in the commander’s headquarters. It is equipped with fifteen sensors, intended to collect information on the movements of the structure. Starliner also carries around 230 kg of refueling for the station, which runs in orbit about 400 kilometers above sea level.

The ISS approach in the night from Friday to Saturday, around 1:00 am (French time) will be closely followed 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 disaster will not be opened until the next day on Saturday. Starliner must remain moored at the ISS for about five days, before going back down to land to land in the American state desert of the New Mexico, on the basis of White Sands.

The stake is great for the company, which hopes to be able to make a first flight inhabited by the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be essential to finally obtain the homologation of NASA.

repeated setbacks

The development of Starliner turned out to be a long epic strewn with pitfalls. In 2019, the capsule could not be placed on the right orbit because of a clock problem, and had to return to Earth after two days. Boeing then realized that other software concerns had almost generated a serious flight anomaly. NASA had prescribed a long list of recommendations and changes to be made.

Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the pitch to try the flight, a humidity problem had caused a chemical reaction having blocked the opening of certain valves of the capsule. She had to return to the factory for inspection – for 10 months. The problem was solved by hermetically insulating the new valves, in order to prevent humidity from penetrating, Mark Nappi, head at Boeing on Tuesday. But in the future, other longer-term solutions, including a modified design, are on the table.

The performance of the capsule will be scrutinized this week, and will have to restore the image of Boeing, at the very least tarnished by these repeated setbacks.

/Media reports.