Boeing capsule flies to ISS in key test

The Orbital Test Flight 2 (OFT-2) mission lifted off at 2254 GMT from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the spacecraft attached to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, according to NASA’s live stream.

Mission success is key to redeeming Boeing’s reputation, after a first failure in 2019, when the attempt to dock with the ISS failed due to software errors, which involved burning a lot of fuel to reach the destination and the possibility of destruction of the spacecraft. . when you come back.

“It’s a big moment,” said NASA assistant administrator Pam Melroy shortly before launch. “When we built the space station, we were really focused on all the amazing science we could do when it came to innovation. Having another way to get there now just gives us more resilience.”

After years of failures and delays, the American aeronautical company Boeing will try to reconnect with competition from SpaceX to serve as a space “taxi” for NASA.

– Reimbursement day –

The two companies won fixed-value contracts of $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX in 2014, shortly after the Space Shuttle program ended, at a time when the United States United depended on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the orbiting laboratory.

Boeing, with its centuries-old history, was seen by many as a safe bet against the virtually inexperienced SpaceX. But Musk’s company recently sent its fourth routine team to the research platform as Boeing development delays cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Starliner is expected to dock with the ISS approximately 24 hours after launch and deliver more than 226 kg of cargo, including food and other supplies such as clothing or sleeping bags, to the crew.

The unmanned test flight aims to determine if the capsule will be capable of carrying humans. It had already been tested, but without success, in 2019, when the spacecraft had to return to Earth early, avoiding a disaster.

Then, in August 2021, a new test had to be canceled just before launch, due to a valve problem detected during the last checks.

In the meantime, SpaceX has already successfully conducted its own tests and started transporting NASA astronauts on regular missions.

In total, billionaire Elon Musk’s company transported 18 astronauts with its own capsule, the Dragon, as well as four space tourists who paid to be on the mission.

However, NASA wants to diversify its options so as not to run the risk of running out of American transport again, as happened after the end of space transport missions in 2011. Until the emergence of SpaceX, the American space agency was forced to pay for the crew places on the Russian Soyuz rockets.

Thursday’s launch is “a critical step” toward getting “two vehicles that regularly carry crews,” Dana Weigel, deputy director of NASA’s ISS program, said at a press conference Tuesday. The director pointed out that a fixed price contract had been signed with SpaceX and Boeing.

– Delicate coupling –

During the test, a doll named Rosie will be placed in the commander’s seat. It is equipped with 15 sensors, intended to collect information on the movements of the structure.

The approach to the ISS this Friday, around 8:00 p.m. GMT, will be closely watched by astronauts aboard the station. First, they will order the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of contact and docking. A few hours later, the capsule hatch will open.

Starliner will remain docked to the ISS for five days, before returning to Earth to land in the middle of the desert in the state of New Mexico, in the west of the United States, at the base of White Sands.

– Backhand in sequence –

The development of the Starliner project turned out to be a long epic full of obstacles.

In 2019, the capsule was unable to enter the correct orbit due to a problem with its clock and had to return to Earth after two days. Boeing later discovered that other software problems had nearly caused a serious flight anomaly.

NASA has 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 a new takeoff, a humidity problem caused a chemical reaction which blocked the opening of certain valves of the capsule and the material had to return to workshops for inspections. for 10 months. .

The problem was solved by sealing off the new valves, in an attempt to keep moisture out, Boeing chief Mark Nappi said on Tuesday. However, for the future, other longer-term solutions, including a design change, are already being evaluated by experts.

The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to be able to make a first manned flight by the end of the year. This second test mission will be decisive in finally obtaining NASA’s approval.

But the exact schedule will depend on the performance of the capsule this week, which, at the same time, can restore Boeing’s image, which has been badly damaged by the following setbacks.




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