Boeing’s Starliner capsule arrives on the ISS for the first time

It’s a good start. Boeing’s Starliner capsule docked with the International Space Station for the first time on Friday, a success for the company that must in the future transport astronauts to NASA, even though that empty test flight took place years ago from SpaceX.

Docking with the Space Station (ISS) took place at 20:28 US East Coast time (00:28 GMT Saturday), more than an hour behind the originally scheduled time due to final checks during manoeuvres, meticulously choreographed 400 km above. of our heads.

Astronauts aboard the ISS and the control room in Houston closely monitored the approach. Starliner first leveled about 250 yards from the station. Then, after advancing a little, the capsule retreated to demonstrate that it could retreat if necessary.

Finally, after a new controlled stop, although longer than expected at 10 meters, the delicate final maneuver began, carried out while the station is rotating at 28,000 km/h. The vehicle approached slowly, until contact.

“The Starliner spacecraft successfully completes its first historic docking with the International Space Station, opening a new route to the flying laboratory for crews,” said a commentator on the US space agency’s live stream. The capsule hatch won’t be open until Saturday. Boeing is transporting around 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA, including food.

thrusters bug

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.

This unmanned test flight had already been attempted in 2019, but the capsule encountered several problems and had to turn back without being able to reach the station.

Since then, Boeing has struggled to catch up with SpaceX, a comparative newcomer to the aerospace industry, but which has been transporting astronauts for NASA since 2020, following the successful qualification flights of its own capsule, the Dragon.

The Starliner took off from Florida on Thursday atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. About 30 minutes after launch, the capsule managed to position itself on the correct trajectory, but two of its 12 thrusters failed. NASA and Boeing officials, however, played down the incident, which they said should not affect the mission.

The thrusters will be used again at the end of the mission, for the maneuver that aims to bring the capsule back into the Earth’s atmosphere. But the problem doesn’t “need to be solved” a priori until then, previous efforts nevertheless worked, estimated NASA’s Steve Stich during a Thursday night press conference. The system “does not pose a risk to the remainder of the test flight,” NASA also confirmed in its blog on Friday.

damaged image

A mission finally successful from start to finish would restore the air giant’s image somewhat after repeated setbacks in recent years.

In 2019, the capsule could not be placed in the correct orbit due to a clock issue. Boeing then realized that other software issues nearly caused a serious flight anomaly.

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 ten months.

After this empty test, a second will have to be performed for the spacecraft to get NASA approval, this time with astronauts on board. Timing will depend on how the Starliner performs this week, but Boeing plans to fly it by the end of the year.

Also for the American space agency, the stakes are high, as it has invested heavily in the development of the spacecraft. NASA has fixed-price contracts with Boeing and SpaceX worth billions of dollars.

The choice of two companies should enable competition to be stimulated and never again risk, in the event of a problem for one or the other, running out of an American “taxi” to the ISS. After the shutdown of the space shuttles in 2011 and until 2020, NASA was in fact reduced to paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets.

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