Two years later, the Starliner finally tried flying towards the ISS

Except for last-minute unexpected events, the Boeing-developed Starliner capsule must take off overnight from Thursday to Friday to arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) after about twenty-four hours. The takeoff of this second test flight without passengers is scheduled at 6:54 pm at Cape Canaveral in Florida (00:54 am in Switzerland). After a failure and an aborted attempt, the Starliner must prove itself.

In December 2019, the first attempt failed. The capsule that would deliver astronauts to the ISS into station orbit failed following the failure of an on-board computer. Although it should take place by the end of 2020, a second test flight is finally scheduled for last August. But while the rocket propelling Starliner was already on the launch pad, a problem was detected with the valves of the capsule propulsion system. The program is once again experiencing long delays.

Also read: Boeing returned its Starliner space capsule to the garage

Despite these problems, Steve Stich, Commercial Crew program manager for NASA, gave an assurance at a press conference Tuesday night: “We conducted a launch readiness inspection this morning, it was very short. and very clean. If I think back to the last ten months, since last summer a lot of work has been done to solve the valve problem and prepare the vehicle. Now we’re at the point where it’s time to fly the Starliner. “

The Atlas rocket that will carry the Starliner was brought to the launch pad on Wednesday. NASA has indicated a 70% favorable time for launch, which should not prevent launch without it developing ideal conditions.

An important shot for Boeing

Passing this test is very important to Boeing. Launched after the 2011 closure of space shuttles that previously served American astronauts, the Commercial Crew program is to allow NASA to remove its reliance on Russia’s Roscosmos agency and its Soyuz spacecraft. The work was entrusted to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, but delays are accumulating when flights should be operational in 2017. A situation that forced the American agency to buy Soyuz launches for some hundred million dollars.

Also read: The second youth for space shuttles

But now, despite the context of the tensions associated with the war in Ukraine, the success of the Starliner is largely an issue for Boeing. “Similar to 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, there were fears that the United States would lose access to the ISS, now SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is working. This confirms NASA’s choice to call on two suppliers,” he said. Maxime Puteaux, space industry specialist for Euroconsult.The company founded by Elon Musk confirmed its unmanned test flight in March 2019.

While Boeing is only in its second attempt, SpaceX has already conducted six manned flights, two of which are private. “Boeing became a challenge against SpaceX, I don’t know who could have predicted that, three years ago,” Maxime Puteaux recalled. At the end of February, NASA extended the SpaceX contract for three additional flights in addition to the six launches already planned in the initial agreement for 900 million dollars.

Also read: Starlink in Ukraine, the beautiful shot of Elon Musk

For its part, Boeing had to bear the cost of Starliner delays worth $ 595 million. Beyond the costs, this historic player in the space industry must prove that it can meet the goals set by NASA, while the costs associated with building Boeing’s SLS, a launcher that should allow the return to the Moon , was pinned by the Government Accountability Office in 2019. The organization pointed to paying performance bonuses of up to $ 271 million to Boeing between 2014 and 2018 as the program fell behind on schedule.

The ISS is about to end

If Thursday’s launch starts smoothly, Boeing will still need to complete a passenger flight, expected by the end of the year. “Procrastination is better than failure, so it’s not a last-ditch theft, nuance Maxime Puteaux. But Boeing is late to the party.”

The end of the ISS, too old, is already scheduled and the Starliner is not designed for any other use other than ISS trips. It cannot be used as part of the moon return program for example. However, it can also operate private flights such as those already done by SpaceX.

On the ISS estate: “Private space stations will be more international”

There is still good news for Boeing. While American funding for the ISS will end in 2024, a report published last January provides for extending the life of its operation and a de-orbiting of the ISS in 2031. The time that the alternative stations funded of private enterprises have been set up. Starliner can also perform on these projects.


Europe without cars

If the United States wants to extend the life of the ISS, Russia intends not to do more than 2025 in funding the station. Before the war started in Ukraine, negotiations were supposed to take place for an extension until 2030, but they now have little chance of succeeding.

Read about it: Russia’s threats have reached the International Space Station

Russia’s departure could pose a problem for European astronauts who rely on cooperation agreements to join the ISS, as ESA does not have its own vehicle. “Previously, the idea of ​​a European capsule was taboo, now we are starting to discuss it in public, says Maxime Puteaux. The question is whether Europe wants to be autonomous. At the end of the year, the ESA ministerial conference will take place. We need to see if financing lines are drawn up for this project.

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