The Starliner, the Boeing capsule, will soon arrive at the International Space Station

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Washington (AFP) – Boeing’s capsule, the Starliner, is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station for the first time on Friday, an important step toward establishing a new American mode of transportation for NASA’s astronauts, even if this empty test is came years late.

Docking using the Space Station (ISS), which flies at 28,000 km / h and 400 km altitude above our heads, is due to take place at 7:10 pm time on the east coast of the US (23:10 GMT) .

This unmanned test flight was already tested in 2019, but the capsule had some problems and had to return before arriving at the station.

Since then, Boeing has struggled to catch up with SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace sector by comparison, but has been delivering astronauts for NASA since 2020, after successful qualifying flights of its own capsule, the Dragon.

Friday’s approach to the ISS will be monitored by astronauts aboard the station. They will first order a light to turn on to verify the ship’s communication link, then they will ask it to stabilize about 250 meters away. Finally, the meticulous contact maneuver will be performed. If necessary, the crew can also cancel the operation.

The capsule hatch will not open until Saturday. Boeing carries approximately 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA, including food.

The Starliner must remain docked on the ISS for about five days, before descending to Earth to land in the desert of the U.S. state of New Mexico, at the base of White Sands.

bug of thrusters

The capsule soared from Florida on Thursday aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

About 30 minutes after launch, the Starliner was good to get to the course, but failed two of its 12 thrusters. NASA and Boeing officials ignored the incident, which they said should not affect the mission.

The Boeing Starliner space capsule Laurence University Hospital AFP

“Teams are working hard to understand why we had these anomalies,” Mark Nappi, head of the manned space program at Boeing, said at a press conference.

The thrusters will be used again at the end of the mission, for the maneuver intended to return the capsule to the Earth’s atmosphere. But the problem was not an a priori that “had to be solved” at the time, previous pushes would nevertheless work, estimates Steve Stich, of NASA. “I think we can complete the mission with the remaining thrusters.”

Broken image

A successful mission will finally restore a bit the image of the aeronautical giant, after repeated setbacks in recent years.

In 2019, the capsule could not be placed in the correct orbit due to a clock problem. Boeing then realized that other software problems had almost caused a serious flight anomaly.

Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad to try to fly again, a humidity problem caused a chemical reaction that blocked the opening of several valves in the capsule. He had to return to the factory for inspection – within ten months.

After this empty test, a second needs to be taken for the spacecraft to get NASA approval, this time with astronauts on board. The timing depends on how the Starliner performs this week, but Boeing plans to fly it by the end of the year.

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

Choosing to use two companies should make it possible to encourage competition and not to again risk, in case there is a problem for one or the other, to find themselves without an American “taxi” to the ISS. After the closure of space shuttles in 2011, and until 2020, NASA has actually reduced payment for space on Russian Soyuz rockets.

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