Elon Musk tackles takeoff planned for tonight of the Starliner spacecraft designed by Boeing

Elon Musk tackles takeoff planned for tonight of the Starliner spacecraft designed by Boeing
Elon Musk tackles takeoff planned for tonight of the Starliner spacecraft designed by Boeing

This test mission should allow Boeing to demonstrate that its ship is safe before starting regular missions to the Space Station (ISS) four years behind SpaceX.

The countdown is on: after years of successive postponements, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft must take off for the first time Monday evening with astronauts on board, heading for the International Space Station, and thus join the very private club of spaceships having transported humans. The company is playing big on this final test mission, which should allow it to demonstrate that its ship is safe before starting regular missions to the Space Station (ISS) four years behind SpaceX.

Only a handful of American ships have carried astronauts in the past. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule joined this list in 2020, succeeding the legendary Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs. After the latter stopped in 2011, NASA astronauts had to travel aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. It is to put an end to this dependence that in 2014, the American space agency signed a contract worth 4.2 billion with Boeing and 2.6 billion with SpaceX for the development of new vessels.

Despite this difference in funding, “SpaceX finished 4 years early” its competitor, did not fail to recall on Monday the boss of the former start-up, Elon Musk. “Far too many managers are not technicians at Boeing”he tackled.

Once Starliner is operational, NASA wants to alternate between SpaceX and Boeing flights to transport its astronauts to the ISS. After the ISS is retired in 2030, the two ships could be used to transport humans to future private space stations, which several American companies are already planning to build.

Space veterans on board

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

These space veterans, both from the US Navy, have each already visited the ISS twice, aboard a space shuttle then a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But this time, “everything is new, everything is unique, the ship itself, the way it flies”pointed out 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 rejoiced alongside his colleague.

The weather forecast is 95% favorable for launch

For NASA, which ordered this vehicle ten years ago, the challenge is also high: having a second vehicle in addition to that of SpaceX to transport American astronauts “is very important”, underlined Dana Weigel, ISS program manager. This capacity will make it possible to better respond to “different scenarios” emergency, for example in the event of a problem on one of the ships, she explained.

Once in space, the astronauts must test the manual piloting of the spacecraft. Starliner must then dock with the ISS on Wednesday around 05:00 GMT and stay there for a little over a week, before bringing its two passengers back to Earth. NASA has warned that unforeseen events could punctuate this mission, since it is a test flight intended to make final adjustments. The success of this mission would, however, be more than welcome for Boeing, in turmoil over safety problems on its planes, and whose Starliner development program has turned into a saga marked by unpleasant surprises and setbacks.

Successive failures

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 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.

Boeing then hoped to be able to achieve the first manned flight the same year. But problems discovered late, notably with the parachutes braking the capsule during its return to the atmosphere, again caused delays. “There were a number of things that were surprises that we had to overcome.”, Mark Nappi, manager at Boeing, said at a press conference. But “this made our teams very strong”he assured. “It is quite typical that the development of a space vehicle for humans takes ten years”he added.

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