After years of delays and failures, Boeing’s space capsule, Starliner, took off from Florida on Thursday night, May 19, for an empty test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), hoping to finally become the second company to act as a “taxi” for NASA. astronauts in the future, after SpaceX.
The capsule was placed on the right orbit, but two of the 12 thrusters normally used for the maneuver failed, NASA officials said at a news conference. However, this problem should not affect the mission, they assured. “The teams are working to understand why we had these irregularities”said Mark Nappi, head of the manned space program at Boeing. “We have a safe vehicle and we’re on our way to the International Space Station”he added.
A first test without passengers on board had already been attempted in 2019. But it was close to a disaster; the ship must have returned to Earth prematurely without having reached the ISS.
So in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled at the very last minute, even before launch, due to a valve problem discovered during the last checks.
A delay train on SpaceX
Meanwhile, SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has passed its own tests and begun transporting NASA astronauts on regular missions. In total, billionaire Elon Musk’s company has already transported eighteen with its own capsule, Dragon, as well as four private passengers on a space tourism mission.
But NASA wants to diversify its options so as not to risk being without means of transport, as was the case after the space shuttle closed in 2011. Until SpaceX, the US agency was reduced to paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. Thursday’s launch is “a crucial step for us” to dispose of “two vehicles regularly transporting crew”, recalled at a news conference Tuesday, Dana Weigel, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA. A fixed-price contract has been entered into with SpaceX as well as with Boeing.
A litmus test
On Thursday, only one dummy named Rosie sat in the command seat. It is equipped with about fifteen sensors, intended to collect information about the movements of the structure. Starliner also brings about 230 kg of supplies to the station, which orbits at about 400 kilometers altitude.
The approach, the night between Friday and Saturday, around 01.00 (French time) will be closely followed by the astronauts aboard the ISS. They will first command the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away before continuing with the delicate contact maneuver. The capsule hatch does not open until the next day, Saturday. Starliner must remain anchored to the ISS for about five days before descending to Earth to land in the desert of the U.S. state of New Mexico based on White Sands.
There is a lot at stake for the company, which hopes to be able to complete a first manned flight before the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be crucial to finally gain approval from NASA.
The evolution of Starliner turned out to be a long saga full of 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 had prescribed a long list of recommendations and changes to be made.
So, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad to try the flight again, a moisture problem had caused a chemical reaction that prevented the opening of certain valves in the capsule. She had had to return to the factory for inspection for ten months. The problem was solved by hermetically insulating the new valves, to prevent moisture from penetrating, Mark Nappi, manager at Boeing, explained on Tuesday. But other long-term solutions, including a modified design, are being explored.
The capsule’s performance will be scrutinized this week, and will have to restore the image of Boeing, tainted by these repeated setbacks.