A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, with the Boeing Starliner capsule atop, before a test flight, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 18, 2022 (NASA/Joel KOWSKY)
After years of delays and failures, Boeing is expected to try to get back in the race on Thursday with the liftoff of its Starliner capsule, for an empty test flight towards the International Space Station, in hopes of finally becoming the second company to serve. as a “taxi” for NASA astronauts, along with SpaceX.
The launch is scheduled for Cape Canaveral, Florida at 18:54 local time (22:54 GMT). The Starliner will be powered by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) approximately 24 hours later.
This test with no passengers on board, which should prove the capsule is safe to transport humans, had already been attempted in 2019. But it came close to disaster, and the spacecraft had to return to Earth prematurely without having reached the ISS.
Then, in August 2021, a retest had to be canceled at the last moment, even before launch, due to a valve issue detected during final checks.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, passed its own tests and began transporting NASA astronauts on regular missions. In all, billionaire Elon Musk’s company has already transported 18 astronauts with their own capsule, the Dragon – as well as four private passengers on a space tourism mission.
But NASA wants to diversify its options, never to run the risk of running out of American means of transport, as after the shutdown of the space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the American agency was in fact reduced to paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. .
Thursday’s launch is “a crucial step for us” toward “two vehicles that regularly transport crews,” Dana Weigel, deputy director of NASA’s ISS program, said at a news conference on Tuesday. A fixed-price contract was signed with SpaceX and Boeing.
– Delicate mooring –
On Thursday, only a puppet named Rosie will sit in the commander’s seat. It is equipped with about fifteen sensors, intended to collect information about the structure’s movements.
Starliner is also transporting around 230 kg of supplies to the station, which orbits at an altitude of around 400 kilometers.
The approach to the ISS on Friday, around 23:00 GMT, will be closely followed by the astronauts aboard the Station. They will first command the capsule to stabilize at about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate contact maneuver. The capsule hatch will not open until the next day, Saturday.
The Starliner is expected to remain docked on the ISS for about five days, before descending to Earth to land in the desert of the US state of New Mexico, based at White Sands.
– Repeated setbacks –
The development of Starliner turned out to be a long epic full of 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 issues 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 moisture problem triggered a chemical reaction that blocked certain valves in the capsule from opening. She had to go back to the factory for inspection – for 10 months.
The problem was solved by hermetically insulating the new valves, to prevent the ingress of moisture, explained Tuesday Mark Nappi, manager of Boeing. But in the future, other long-term solutions, including a modified design, are on the table.
The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to be able to make a first manned flight by the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be essential to finally getting NASA’s approval.
But the exact timeline will depend on how the capsule performs this week – which at the same time will restore Boeing’s image a little, to say the least tarnished by these repeated setbacks.