Boeing makes a third attempt to launch its Starliner capsule to the ISS


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Boeing will attempt again on Thursday to send the capsule it designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station on a successful, uncrewed test mission. After two previous attempts to complete such a mission failed, Boeing’s goal is to prove that the spacecraft can dock with the outpost in orbit. It must succeed before it can move on to missions with people on board.

The capsule, called Starliner, is scheduled for launch at 6:54 p.m. ET Thursday from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida. If all goes well, the Atlas V rocket will launch the capsule into orbit, after which it will detach and spend approximately 24 hours flying freely in orbit before arriving at the ISS and making soft contact, docking to the spacecraft, where he is expected to stay for less than a week.

Aboard this mission will be supplies for astronauts already on board the ISS as well as a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit, named Rosie, after World War II, Rosie the Riveter.

But “hopefully” proved difficult for the program, which Boeing had originally hoped to be operational in 2017 but has been plagued by delays and development blockages. The first attempt at this test flight, called OFT-1, in 2019 was cut short due to a problem with the Starliner’s onboard clock. The error caused thrusters on board the capsule to misfire, causing it to veer off course, and officials decided to fly the spacecraft home rather than continue the mission. It took more than a year to eliminate this problem and a series of other software problems.

More recently, the Starliner has been beleaguered with valve issues. When the spacecraft rolled out to the launch pad in August 2021, a pre-flight check revealed key valves had been stuck in place and engineers were unable to immediately fix the problem.

Eventually, the capsule had to be removed from the launch pad. When engineers were unable to repair it on site, it eventually had to be taken back to the Boeing factory for further troubleshooting.

The valves have since become a permanent source of contention for the company. According to a recent Reuters report, the subcontractor that manufactures the valves, Alabama-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, is at odds with Boeing over the root cause of the valve problem.

Boeing and NASA disagree, according to the report and comments from NASA officials at recent press conferences.

Their investigation found that moisture was entering the valves and causing “corrosion” and “sticking,” Boeing vice president and Starliner program manager Mark Nappi told a news conference on Wednesday. last week. This led the company to devise a short-term solution, creating a purge system, which involves a small bag, designed to keep corrosion-causing moisture out. NASA and Boeing say they are comfortable with this solution.

“We’re in very good shape to fly this system,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said last week.

But this may not be the end. Boeing revealed last week that it may eventually have to redesign the valves.

“There’s a bit more testing that we want to do, and based on those results, we’ll solidify what kind of changes we make going forward,” Nappi said. “We will probably know more in the coming months.”

If Boeing goes ahead with a more comprehensive overhaul of the valves, it’s unclear how long that will take or if it could further delay Boeing’s first astronaut mission, which at this point is years behind schedule. . Run-ins with Starliner also cost the company about half a billion dollars, according to public records.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, once seen as the overlooked competitor to NASA’s commercial crew program, has already launched six astronaut missions for NASA as well as two tourist missions. The astronaut’s maiden launch of his vehicle, the Crew Dragon, became the first to carry astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program retired in 2011.

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