The Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule, powered by the United Launch Alliance Atlas VI rocket, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 19, 2022. JOHN RAOUX / AP After years of delays and failures, the Boeing space capsule, Starliner, took off Thursday evening May 19 from Florida for an empty test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), hoping to finally become the second company to serve as a future “taxi for NASA astronauts, after SpaceX. The capsule was placed on the correct trajectory, but two of the 12 thrusters normally used for the maneuver failed, NASA officials said at a press conference. This problem should not affect the mission, however, they assured. “The teams are working to understand why we had these anomalies,” said Mark Nappi, head of the manned space program at Boeing. “We have a safe vehicle and we are 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 had come close to disaster; the ship must have returned to Earth prematurely without having reached the ISS. Then in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled at the very last moment, even before the launch, due to a valve problem detected during the final checks. A train behind SpaceX Meanwhile, SpaceX, yet a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has for its part passed its own tests, and started transporting NASA astronauts on regular missions. In all, 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. Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers Spacecraft, a new sovereignty issue But NASA wants to diversify its options, so as not to risk finding itself without means of transport, as was the case after the shutdown of the space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the American agency was indeed reduced to paying for places in the Russian Soyuz rockets. Thursday’s launch is “a crucial step for us” to have “two vehicles regularly carrying crews”, Dana Weigel, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA, recalled at a press conference on Tuesday. . A fixed price contract has been signed with SpaceX as well as with Boeing. A litmus test On Thursday, only a dummy named Rosie sat in the commander’s seat. It is equipped with about fifteen 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 kilometers. The approach, on the night of Friday to Saturday, around 1 a.m. (French time) will be closely followed by the astronauts on board the ISS. They will first command the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of contact. The capsule hatch won’t be opened until the next day, Saturday. Starliner must remain docked to the ISS for about five days, before descending to Earth to land in the desert of the US state of New Mexico, on the basis of White Sands. The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to be able to carry out a first manned flight by the end of the year. This second demonstration mission will be essential to finally obtain approval from NASA. Repeated setbacks The development of Starliner turned out to be a long epic 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 modifications to be made. Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad to attempt the flight again, a humidity problem had caused a chemical reaction preventing the opening of certain valves of the capsule. She had had to return to the factory for inspection, for ten months. The problem was solved by hermetically isolating the new valves, in order to prevent moisture from entering, explained, Tuesday, Mark Nappi, manager at Boeing. But other longer-term solutions, including a modified design, are being studied. The performance of the capsule will be scrutinized this week, and will have to restore the image of Boeing, tarnished by these repeated setbacks. Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers The enthusiasm of French start-ups for the space Le Monde with AFP
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