Boeing capsule takes off to the International Space Station in a major test

The Orbital Test Flight 2 (OFT-2) mission lifted off at 22:54 GMT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the spacecraft attached to NASA’s Atlas 5 rocket, according to a NASA live broadcast.

Mission success is crucial to recovering Boeing’s reputation, after the first failure in 2019, when the attempt to dock with the International Space Station failed due to software errors, which included burning too much fuel to reach the destination and potentially destroying the spacecraft. during your return.

“It’s a big moment,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy said shortly before launch. “When we built the space station, we were really focused on all the amazing science we can do in innovation. Having another way to get there now gives us more flexibility.”

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

– Redemption Day –

Both companies secured contracts worth $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 relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the orbital laboratory.

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

The Starliner is expected to dock with the International Space Station about 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 drone test flight aims to determine if the capsule will be able to carry humans. It was already tested, but without success, in 2019, when the spacecraft had to return to Earth early, to avoid a catastrophe.

Then, in August 2021, a retest just before launch had to be called off, due to a valve problem discovered during final checks.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has already successfully conducted its own tests and has begun flying NASA astronauts on regular missions.

In all, billionaire Elon Musk’s company flew 18 astronauts with their own capsule, the Dragon, as well as four paid space tourists to do a mission.

However, NASA wants to diversify its options so that it does not run the risk of running out of American transportation again, as happened after the end of the space transportation missions in 2011. Until the advent of SpaceX, the US space agency had to pay for crew slots on Russian Soyuz rockets.

Thursday’s launch is a “critical step” toward having “two vehicles that transport crews on a regular basis,” Dana Weigl, deputy program manager for NASA’s International Space Station, said at a press conference Tuesday. The director highlighted that a fixed-price contract has been signed with both SpaceX and Boeing.

– precise coupling –

During the test, a doll named Rosie will be placed in the captain’s seat. It is equipped with 15 sensors, designed to collect information about the movements of the chassis.

The approach of the International Space Station on Friday, around 20:00 GMT, will be closely watched by astronauts aboard the station. First, they will order the capsule to rest about 250 metres, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of contact and docking. Hours later, the capsule opening will open.

The Starliner will remain docked at the International Space Station for five days, before returning to Earth to land in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, in the western United States, at White Sands Base.

– Successive setbacks –

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

In 2019, the capsule was unable to enter the correct orbit due to a problem with its watch and had to return to Earth two days later. Boeing later found out that other software issues almost caused a serious flight malfunction.

NASA has put together a long list of recommendations and modifications to be implemented.

Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad for a new takeoff test, a moisture problem caused a chemical reaction that prevented some valves in the capsule from opening, and the machine was forced to return to the workshops for inspections. for 10 months.

The problem was resolved by insulating the new valves tightly, with the goal of keeping moisture out, Boeing CEO Mark Nappi explained Tuesday. However, for the future, other long-term solutions, including a design change, are already being evaluated by experts.

There is a lot at stake for the company, which hopes to be able to make its first manned flight by the end of the year. This second test mission will be instrumental 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, may restore the image of Boeing, which has been badly damaged by the following setbacks.

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