Takeoff of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and its first astronauts postponed – 05/07/2024 at 05:59

Takeoff of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and its first astronauts postponed – 05/07/2024 at 05:59
Takeoff of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and its first astronauts postponed – 05/07/2024 at 05:59

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams, at Cape Canaveral in Florida on May 6, 2024 (AFP / Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo)

Yet another setback for the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft: its takeoff to the International Space Station, already several years behind schedule, was canceled on Monday just two hours before the scheduled launch due to a Technical problem.

An anomaly has been identified on a valve of the Atlas V rocket which is to propel the Starliner capsule into orbit, announced the launcher manufacturer, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) group.

A new takeoff attempt could theoretically take place as early as Tuesday evening, as well as Friday, Saturday or mid-next week, but the new date will depend on the analysis carried out by the teams at ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

If it turns out that the valve needs to be replaced, the operation would take “several days”, Tory Bruno, the boss of ULA, told a press conference. He assured that his teams would work “all night” and should be able to deliver their analysis Tuesday morning.

“The crew was never in danger,” he assured.

American astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams were scheduled to take off Monday evening from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The preparations initially went smoothly: the rocket had been filled with fuel, the weather was ideal and the astronauts were seated in their seats. In the end, they will still have to wait.

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)

Boeing is playing big on this final test mission, which should allow its ship to join the very private club of space vehicles that have transported human beings.

The aerospace industry giant must demonstrate that its capsule is safe before beginning regular missions to the Space Station (ISS) — four years behind SpaceX.

For NASA, which ordered this vehicle ten years ago, the stakes are also high: having a second vehicle in addition to that of SpaceX to transport American astronauts should make it possible to better respond to “different emergency scenarios”. , for example in the event of a problem on one of the ships, underlined Dana Weigel, in charge of the ISS program.

– Series of setbacks –

The success of this mission would also 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 successive postponements.

The ULA group’s Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s Starliner capsule at its top before its first manned mission, at Cape Canaveral in Florida on May 4, 2024 (AFP / Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo)

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, this time 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 carry out its 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,” admitted Boeing executive Mark Nappi. But “it made our teams very strong,” he said.

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

– Beaten by SpaceX –

Only a handful of American ships have carried astronauts in the past.

A flag with the logo of the first manned mission of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, at Cape Canaveral in Florida on May 3 (AFP / Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo)

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 spacecraft.

Despite this difference in financing, “SpaceX finished four years before” its competitor, Elon Musk, the boss of SpaceX, did not fail to remind us on Monday. “Far too many managers are not technicians at Boeing,” he said.

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 vessels could be used to transport humans to future private space stations.

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