Years after SpaceX, Boeing’s Starliner capsule reaches the ISS for the first time

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Several years after Space X, the Boeing capsule docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday May 20. Boeing is transporting about 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA.

Boeing’s capsule, Starliner, docked with the International Space Station for the first time on Friday, a success for the company which must in the future transport astronauts for NASA, even if this empty test flight took place years behind SpaceX. Docking with the Space Station (ISS) took place at 8:28 p.m. US East Coast time (00:28 GMT Saturday), more than an hour behind the originally scheduled time due to final checks during maneuvers , meticulously choreographed 400 km above our heads.

Astronauts aboard the ISS, and the control room in Houston, closely monitored the approach. Starliner first leveled off about 250 yards from the station. Then, after advancing slightly, the capsule retreated in order to demonstrate that it could retreat if necessary. Finally, after a new controlled stop although longer than expected at 10 meters, the delicate final maneuver, carried out while the station is speeding at 28,000 km/h, has been initiated. The vehicle approached slowly, until contact.

A five-day mission

“The Starliner spacecraft successfully completes its historic first docking with the International Space Station, opening a new route to the flying laboratory for crews,” said a commentator on the US space agency’s live broadcast. The capsule hatch will only be open this Saturday. Boeing is transporting about 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA, including food.

Starliner must remain docked to the ISS for about five days, before descending to Earth to land in the desert of the American state of New Mexico, on the basis of White Sands.

THE Atlas V rocket took off on Thursday, May 19, 2022 from Florida.
Nasa pictures

SpaceX is ahead

This unmanned test flight had already been attempted in 2019, but the capsule had then encountered several problems and had to turn back without being able to reach the station. Since then, Boeing has been struggling to catch up with SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace sector in comparison, but which has already been transporting astronauts for NASA since 2020, after the successful qualification flights of its own capsule, Dragon.

Starliner lifted off from Florida on Thursday atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. About 30 minutes after launch, the capsule had managed to place itself on the correct trajectory, but two of its 12 thrusters had failed. NASA and Boeing officials, however, played down the incident, which they said should not affect the mission. The thrusters will be used again at the end of the mission, for the maneuver intended to bring the capsule back into the Earth’s atmosphere. But the problem does not a priori “need to be solved” by then, the previous pushes having nevertheless worked, had estimated Steve Stich of NASA during a press conference Thursday evening. The system “does not pose a risk for the rest of the test flight,” NASA also confirmed on its blog on Friday.

Elon Musk, the boss of SpaceX and Tesla.

Elon Musk, the boss of SpaceX and Tesla.
Photo: AFP

A damaged image

A mission finally successful from start to finish would restore the image of the aeronautical giant a little, after repeated setbacks in recent years. In 2019, the capsule could not be placed in the correct orbit due to a clock problem. Boeing then realized that other software problems had almost caused a serious flight anomaly. Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad to attempt the flight again, a humidity problem caused a chemical reaction that blocked the opening of certain valves in the capsule. She had to go back to the factory for inspection — for ten months.

After this empty test, a second will have to be carried out for the spacecraft to obtain NASA approval, this time with astronauts on board. The timing will depend on how Starliner performs this week, but Boeing plans to fly it by the end of the year. For the American space agency too, the stakes are high, as it has invested heavily in the development of the vessel. NASA has fixed-price contracts with Boeing and SpaceX worth billions of dollars. The choice to use two companies should make it possible to encourage competition and never again risk, in the event of a problem for one or the other, of finding themselves without an American “taxi” to the ISS. After the shutdown of space shuttles in 2011, and until 2020, NASA was indeed reduced to paying for places in Russian Soyuz rockets.

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