Starliner, Boeing’s space taxi, was successfully launched into orbit on Thursday, giving the company a good start to its second opportunity to do things over.
NASA commissioned the construction of the spacecraft so that it could transport humans to and from the International Space Station. But before it can accomplish that, it has to demonstrate that all of its systems are functioning correctly by completing a test trip without any humans on board.
During a manoeuvre to place Starliner in a stable orbit, two of the spacecraft’s thrusters malfunctioned; nonetheless, the spacecraft was able to autonomously adapt using the remaining thrusters, and it continued on its intended path. Engineers are looking into what could have caused the problem.
Both of the preceding efforts to perform that preliminary travel — the first in December 2019 and the second in August 2021 — were plagued by significant difficulties brought on by technological issues. The mishaps have also resulted in significant financial losses for Boeing in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Boeing is quickly gaining ground on SpaceX, a younger space business created by Elon Musk that has already sent five NASA workers to orbit over the course of the previous two years. Boeing is now in the process of catching up to SpaceX.
In the event that one of NASA’s spacecraft is involved in an accident, the agency has a backup plan in the form of a second transportation alternative.
Otherwise, NASA would be forced to depend once again on Russia’s Soyuz capsules, which have served as the sole means by which American astronauts have been able to reach space for over ten years. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, political complications have arisen between the United States and Russia over their partnership on the international space station.
The successful launch on Thursday was a relief for executives from Boeing and NASA. The countdown and launch went off without a hitch, and there were no nasty surprises. The sole problem arose as the Starliner’s thrusters were being fired for the first time. These firings were necessary to give the spaceship its final push into orbit.
The rear of the spaceship is equipped with a set of four pods, each of which has a grouping of three engines. During the orbital insertion manoeuvre, which lasted for around forty seconds, each pod had one of its thrusters begin firing.
According to Mr. Nappi, the thruster in one of the pods began shooting, but after a second it stopped working. The Starliner’s flight control system redirected its attention to the other thruster located in the same pod.
There is also more than 400 kilogrammes (1,004 pounds) of cargo on board, the most of which is composed of food and supplies for the crew of the space station, but also includes some souvenirs. The payload that is to be brought down from the space station by the spaceship weighs close to 600 pounds.
Starliner is scheduled to return to Earth to one of five different places in the western United States after spending around four or five days docked to the space station. In contrast to the majority of American astronaut capsules, which have all landed in water, including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the Starliner is designed to parachutist onto land and rest on top of airbags upon touchdown.
If all goes according to plan, the journey will give NASA with enough data to verify that the spacecraft is capable of transporting humans into orbit without risk. A demonstration trip that might take place with as many as three astronauts on board could take off as soon as the end of the year.
Engineers at Boeing uncovered a second weakness while they were working to fix the first one. This second issue would have caused the incorrect thrusters to fire as the capsule prepared for re-entry, which might have resulted in the spacecraft being completely destroyed. They were able to correct the software issue while Starliner was in orbit around the earth, and the capsule was able to land without incident near White Sands, New Mexico.
Because of these issues, progress could not be made toward the next phase, which was supposed to be a demonstration flight with astronauts on board. NASA informed Boeing that it needed to repeat the uncrewed test flight, but that it would be the company’s responsibility to pay for it.
After more than a year of work to update and retest the software, Boeing finally returned the Starliner spacecraft to the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in August of the previous year, this time atop a second Atlas 5 rocket.
The countdown got underway, but it had to be stopped before it could finish. It was revealed by the management of the flight that 13 valves in the Starliner’s propulsion system had not opened properly.
After that, Boeing spent around eight months looking into the corrosion that had caused the valves to get stuck in the closed position. The service module, which is the part of the Starliner that is located underneath the capsule and contains the propulsion system, was replaced by Boeing with one that was intended for the subsequent trip.
SpaceX and Boeing were the two businesses that NASA contracted to transport humans to and from the space station. It seemed that the Starliner would beat out SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for the first voyage with humans at the time when Boeing conducted its test flight in 2019.
But despite the fact that Starliner has remained on the ground, SpaceX has successfully launched seven flights of the Crew Dragon carrying people. In addition to the five missions carried out for NASA, private people participated in two more missions.
The costs associated with SpaceX’s missions look to be much lower than those associated with Boeing’s. Despite this, NASA officials have said that the organisation is dedicated to the Starliner programme and that having two systems allows for more competition, innovation, and flexibility.