After years of failures and postponements, the American aeronautical giant Boeing will try to return to space competition and eclipse the successful company SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, with the launch this afternoon of his new starliner space capsule, in a test flight to the International Space Station (ISS).
The launch will be by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, from the base at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the southeastern United States at 7:54 p.m. Argentinian time (22:54 GMT). Starliner will dock with the ISS approximately 24 hours later.
This uncrewed test flight is intended to determine if the capsule is capable of carrying humans and reaching the ISS safely, something he tried unsuccessfully in 2019, when the spacecraft had to return to Earth earlier due to an internal software problem, which avoided a catastrophe in extremis. Then, in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled shortly before launch, due to a valve problem detected during the last checks of the test.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, a fledgling aerospace industry compared to giant Boeing, passed its own tests and began ferrying NASA astronauts on regular missions. In all, Elon Musk’s company has already transported 18 astronauts with its own capsulethe Dragon, as well as four private passengers who paid for tickets for a space tourism mission.
However, NASA wants to diversify its options, so as not to run the risk of running out of American-flagged means of transport again, as happened after the closure of space shuttle missions in 2011. Until the appearance of SpaceX, the American space agency was obliged to pay for the crew seats of Russian Soyuz rockets. “The launch is a critical step for us toward two vehicles that routinely carry crews,” Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy ISS program manager, told a news conference.
During this test flight, a doll named Rosie will be placed in the captain’s seat. It is equipped with about 15 sensors, intended to collect information on the movements of the structure. Starliner is also carrying about 230 kg of supplies for the station, which orbits at an altitude of about 400 km above Earth.
The arrival at the ISS on Friday, around 23 GMT, will be closely followed by the astronauts aboard the International Station. They will first order the capsule to stabilize at around 250 meters, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of landing and docking. The capsule hatch won’t open until the next day, Saturday. Starliner must remain docked to the ISS for about 5 days, before returning to Earth land in the desert of the state of New Mexico, in the west of the United States, at the foot of White Sands.
the new pod CST-100 Starliner (Crew Space Transportation) has a diameter of 4.56 meters and is a spacecraft design proposed by Boeing in conjunction with Bigelow Aerospace for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev). It is designed to be able to carry up to seven people, remain in orbit for up to seven months and be reused for up to ten missions.
The development of the Starliner project turned out to be a long saga full of pitfalls for Boeing. 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 later discovered 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 a new takeoff, a humidity problem caused a chemical reaction that blocked the opening of certain valves of the capsule. He had to go back to the workshops for inspections for 10 months.
“These months have been difficult“Acknowledged Steve Stich, head of NASA’s commercial manned program, during a press conference. “We have solved the problem and we are heading for takeoff,” he said, however, with satisfaction.
“The problem was solved by sealing off the new valves to prevent moisture from entering.“, explained Tuesday Mark Nappi, director of Boeing. But in the future, other longer-term solutions, including a modified design, are already being analyzed by experts. The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to make a first manned flight by the end of the year. This second test mission will be key to finally getting NASA’s approval.
But the exact timing will depend on how the capsule performs this weekwhich can at the same time restore somewhat the image of Boeing, quite tarnished by repeated setbacks.