Boeing’s Starliner capsule explodes today on first crewed mission to ISS: Science alert

Launch day is finally here: Boeing’s Starliner capsule blasted off Monday on its first crewed mission to the International Space Station — years after SpaceX first achieved the same milestone.

The flight, the final test before the Starliner enters regular service for NASA, is critical for the US space agency, whose reputation has suffered of late due to safety issues with some of its passenger jets.

The Starliner, first ordered by the US space agency a decade ago, has had a bumpy ride to the finish line with surprising setbacks and numerous delays – a saga Boeing is keen to end.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams Leaving Cape Canaveral Monday (0234 GMT Tuesday) at 10:34 PM in the capsule.

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The Starliner will be launched into orbit by an Atlas V rocket manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture.

Wilmore and Williams, both Navy-trained astronauts, have each been to the ISS twice, once aboard the Space Shuttle and then aboard the Russian Soyuz.

„It’s going to be like coming home,” Williams said.

As for the Boeing spacecraft, Willmore said: „Everything is new. Everything is unique.”

„I don’t think any of us ever dreamed that we would be associated with the first flight of a brand new spacecraft.”

For NASA, the stakes are also high: Having a second option for human spaceflight in addition to SpaceX’s Dragon vehicles is „very important,” said Dana Weigel, manager of the agency’s International Space Station program.

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Weigel said the flexibility would help NASA manage emergency situations, such as problems with a particular space vehicle.

Regression after regression

Starliner is scheduled to arrive at the ISS at 0500 GMT on Wednesday and will remain there for more than a week. Tests will be performed to verify that it is working properly, and then Williams and Willmore will reload the capsule for the return trip home.

A successful mission would help remove the bitter taste left by the many setbacks to the Starliner project.

In 2019, during the first unmanned test flight, the capsule was not placed on the correct trajectory and returned without reaching the ISS.

Then in 2021, the rocket on the launch pad for a new flight, blocked valves forced another postponement.

The empty spacecraft finally reached the ISS in May 2022.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft approaches the International Space Station. (NASA)

Since then, Boeing crews have been working on the test flight so the capsule is certified for use by NASA on regular ISS missions.

It had hoped to make that flight in 2022, but problems continued to grow, particularly with the parachute system that slowly deploys the craft as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.

„There are a lot of surprises along the way that we have to go through,” said Boeing executive Mark Nappi.

„It definitely made the team that much stronger, and we’re very proud of how they’ve overcome every challenge we’ve had.” he added.

„It’s very common for a human spaceflight vehicle to go from design to flying humans in about 10 years.”

’Very embarrassing’

NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free predicts the mission won’t be without its hiccups.

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„We have some unknowns on this mission, things we hope to learn, a test mission. We may encounter things we don’t expect,” said Frei, adding that the Starliner is the sixth type of spacecraft built by the United States for NASA. Astronauts.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule joins that exclusive club in 2020, following the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

Once the Starliner is fully operational, NASA hopes to alternate between SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

In 2014, the agency awarded $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX to build the capsules.

„Everybody thought Boeing was going to get there first,” Eric Seidhouse, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told AFP.

„It was very embarrassing for Boeing that SpaceX went ahead of Starliner.”

Although the ISS is slated to be mothballed in 2030, both Starliner and Dragon could be used to taxi humans to future private space stations, which several companies plan to build.

© Agence France-Presse

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