Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will finally transport its first astronauts – 05/04/2024 at 5:10 p.m.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will finally transport its first astronauts – 05/04/2024 at 5:10 p.m.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will finally transport its first astronauts – 05/04/2024 at 5:10 p.m.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (right) and Suni Williams at Cape Canaveral in Florida, April 25, 2024, before takeoff aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft (AFP / Gregg Newton)

Everything is finally ready: Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is due to take off on Monday and transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time — several years behind SpaceX.

This final Starliner test flight, before the start of its regular operations, is crucial for the giant of the aerospace industry, which, among other things, is at risk for its reputation.

Ordered ten years ago by NASA, the development of the spacecraft has been marked by unpleasant surprises and successive postponements, a dark streak that Boeing hopes to put an end to.

Infographic on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft as it prepares to carry out its first crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) (AFP/Gal ROMA)

American astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are scheduled to take off on Monday at 10:34 p.m. from Cape Canaveral in Florida (02:34 GMT Tuesday) aboard the Starliner capsule, which will be propelled into orbit by an Atlas V rocket from the ULA group.

These two space veterans, both from the US Navy, have each already visited the International Space Station (ISS) twice, aboard a space shuttle and then a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“It will be like coming home,” anticipated Suni Williams.

But regarding the capsule taking them there, “everything is new, everything is unique,” ​​said Butch Wilmore. “I don’t think any of us ever dared to dream of being involved in the first flight of a brand new ship,” he said happily.

For NASA too, the stakes are high: having a second vehicle in addition to that of SpaceX to transport American astronauts “is very important”, underlined Dana Weigel, in charge of the ISS program.

This capacity will make it possible to better respond to “different emergency scenarios”, for example in the event of a problem on one of the vessels, she explained.

– Series of setbacks –

Starliner is due to dock with the ISS around 05:00 GMT on Wednesday and stay there for a little over a week. Tests will be carried out to check its operation, then the two astronauts will return with it to Earth.

The success of this mission would close on a good note a development program which has proven to be fraught with pitfalls.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 16, 2024 (Gregg Newton / Gregg Newton)

In 2019, during a first uncrewed test, the capsule could not be placed on the correct trajectory and returned without reaching the ISS.

Then, in 2021, while the rocket was already on the launch pad to retry the flight, a problem with blocked valves on the capsule led to another postponement.

The empty ship finally managed to reach the ISS in May 2022.

From now on, the first crewed flight must make it possible to certify the capsule, so that it can then begin its regular flights to the ISS.

Boeing had hoped to be able to carry out this first manned flight as early as 2022, but problems discovered late, in particular with the parachutes braking the capsule during its return to the Earth’s atmosphere, had further pushed back the deadline.

“There were a number of things that were surprises that we had to overcome,” Boeing executive Mark Nappi said at a news conference. But “it made our teams very strong, and proud of the way they overcame each problem,” he assured.

“It is quite typical that the development of a space vehicle for humans takes ten years,” he defended.

– “Embarrassing” –

“We will certainly have unforeseen events during this mission, things that we expect to learn, because it is a test mission,” warned Jim Free, associate administrator at NASA.

He recalled that it was only the sixth American spacecraft to be inaugurated by astronauts.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule had already joined this very private club in 2020, in the wake of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs.

Liftoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s Starliner capsule without a crew on board, May 19, 2022 in Cape Canaveral, Florida (NASA / Joel KOWSKY)

Once Starliner is operational, NASA wants to alternate between SpaceX and Boeing flights to transport its astronauts to the ISS.

In 2014, the space agency signed a contract worth 4.2 billion with Boeing and 2.6 billion with SpaceX for the development of these vessels.

“Everyone thought Boeing was going to get there first,” Erik Seedhouse, associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University, recalled for AFP. “That SpaceX succeeded well before Starliner was very embarrassing for Boeing.”

With the ISS due to be retired in 2030, both Starliner and Dragon could eventually be used to ferry humans to future private space stations, which several companies are already planning to build.

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