After years of waiting, the Boeing capsule is headed to the Space Station for its test flight

After years of delays and successive failures, Boeing’s space capsule, Starliner, left Thursday night from Florida for an empty test flight to the International Space Station, hoping to finally be second company to serve as a “taxi” for future NASA astronauts, after SpaceX.

The launch took place from Cape Canaveral at 6:54 pm local time (22:54 GMT). The Starliner is powered by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, and is scheduled to dock at the Space Station (ISS) after approximately 24 hours.

The capsule was placed on the correct trajectory, but two of the 12 thrusters commonly used for the maneuver failed, NASA officials said at a press conference. However, this problem should not affect the mission, they assured.

“Teams are working hard to understand why we had these anomalies,” said Mark Nappi, human space program manager at Boeing. “We have a safe vehicle and we are on our way to the International Space Station,” he added.

This no -passenger test, which must prove that the capsule is safe to transport humans, was already tested in 2019. But it was close to disaster, and the ship had to return to Earth early without arriving. on the ISS.

Then in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled at the very last moment, even before launch, due to a valve problem seen in the last tests.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has passed its own tests and has begun serving NASA astronauts on regular missions. In all, the company of billionaire Elon Musk has already brought 18 astronauts with its own capsule, Dragon – as well as four private passengers on a space tourism mission.

The Boeing Starliner space capsule (AFP – Laurence CHU)

But NASA wants to diversify its options, so as not to again risk finding itself without American means of transportation, such as after the closure of space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the American agencies have actually reduced payment for areas on Russian Soyuz rockets.

A fixed price contract was signed with SpaceX as well as with Boeing.

– Delicate mooring –

On Thursday, only one dummy named Rosie sat in the commander’s chair. It is equipped with fifteen sensors, intended to collect information on the movements of the structure.

The Starliner also carries approximately 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA, including food.

The approach to the ISS on Friday, around 23:00 GMT, will be closely followed by astronauts aboard the Station. They will first order the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of contact. The capsule hatch will not open until the next day, Saturday.

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.

-Repeated shrinkage-

The development of Starliner has been a long epic that has spread 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 problems had almost caused a serious flight anomaly.

NASA has prescribed a long list of recommendations and changes to be made.

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 10 months.

The problem was solved by hermetically sealing the new valves, to prevent moisture from entering, explains Mark Nappi, from Boeing. But in the future, other long -term solutions, including a revised design, are on the table.

The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to make its first manned flight by the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be crucial to finally get approval from NASA.

But the exact schedule depends on the performance of the capsule this week-which at the same time will restore a bit of Boeing’s image, to say the least damaged by repeated recessions.

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