Finally the big day.
After years of delays and successive failures, the Boeing space capsule, Starliner, took off this Thursday evening from Florida for an empty test flight towards the International Space Station, in the hope of finally becoming the second company to serve as a “taxi” for NASA astronauts in the future, after SpaceX.
The launch took place from Cape Canaveral at 6:54 p.m. local time (12:54 a.m. French time).
Starliner was powered by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and is due to dock with the Space Station (ISS) about 24 hours later.
A single passenger dummy
The capsule was placed on the correct course, but two of the 12 thrusters normally used for the maneuver failed, NASA officials said at a press conference.
This problem should not affect the mission, however, they assured.
“Teams are working to understand why we had these anomalies,” said Mark Nappi, human space program manager at Boeing.
“We have a safe vehicle and we are on our way to the International Space Station,” he added.
3... 2... 1... Lift off!
#Starliner is headed to space, powered by @ULALaunch's Atlas V rocket.
This @BoeingSpace demo flight aims to certify a new spacecraft to transport astronauts to the @Space_Station.
—NASA (@NASA) May 19, 2022
This Thursday, only a model named Rosie sat in the commander's seat.
It is equipped with about fifteen sensors, intended to collect information on the movements of the structure.
Starliner is also carrying about 230 kg of supplies on behalf of NASA, including food.
The approach to the ISS this Friday, around 11:00 p.m. GMT (1 a.m. French time), will be closely followed by the astronauts on board the Station.
They will first command the capsule to stabilize about 250 meters away, before proceeding with the delicate maneuver of contact.
The capsule hatch won't be open until Saturday.
Starliner must remain docked to the ISS for about five days, before descending back to Earth to land in the desert of the US state of New Mexico, at the base of White Sands.
A complicated development
This test without passengers on board, which must prove that the capsule is safe to then transport humans, had already been attempted in 2019. But it had then come close to disaster, and the ship had to return to Earth prematurely without having reached the ISS.
Boeing then realized that other software problems had almost caused a serious flight anomaly.
Then in August 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 had to return to the factory for inspection - for 10 months.
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The stakes are high for the company, which hopes to be able to make a first manned flight by the end of the year.
This second demonstration mission will be essential to finally obtain approval from NASA.
But the exact schedule will depend on the performance of the capsule this week - which will at the same time restore Boeing's image a little, to say the least tarnished by these repeated setbacks.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has passed its own tests and started transporting NASA astronauts on regular missions.
In all, billionaire Elon Musk's company has already transported 18 astronauts with its own capsule, Dragon - as well as four private passengers on a space tourism mission.
But NASA wants to diversify its options, so as never again to risk finding itself without American means of transport, as after the shutdown of the space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, the American agency was indeed reduced to paying for places in the Russian Soyuz rockets.
A fixed price contract has been signed with SpaceX as well as with Boeing.