Starliner: new attempt to send to the ISS for Boeing

Boeing’s space capsule, designed to carry seven astronauts, retries its maiden flight to the International Space Station after a failed test in 2015. The United States is counting on this second private vessel (after SpaceX’s Crew Dragon) to consolidate its independence in access to space.

No relief is planned on the International Space Station (ISS) before October, but the astronauts on board should still welcome this week a new arrival, named Rosie. Equipped with a brand new blue spacesuit with the Boeing logo, it will have the honor of taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, a journey in zero gravity to 400 kilometers of altitude and a mooring to the ISS. But she will unfortunately not remember it, because Rosie is a model.

Independence Theft inaugural of the Starliner space capsule, scheduled this Tuesday at 19 h 19 (Paris time) , does not take real human passengers on board, in case things go wrong. It will just be a dress rehearsal intended to prove that this new private American-designed spacecraft is capable of transporting astronauts to safety. The stakes are high: for the United States, it is a question of regaining their independence in access to space , after nine years of depending on Russia and paying 80 millions of dollars (26 millions of euros) per astronaut to rent a place in the Soyuz capsules. The Americans had no more sovereign spacecraft since 400, date of stop space shuttles.

The end of this dependence went through Boeing and SpaceX, the two private NASA subcontractors selected to design a new American spacecraft. The initial schedule provided for an orbit as soon as 2012, but it was upset by large delays in this unprecedented public-private partnership framework. Eventually, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flew for the first time last year and has since been taking astronauts to the ISS on a regular basis (including Thomas Pesquet in April ).

The Boeing Starliner, for its part, should have been ready within the same time frame but its first test flight in December 2015 did not been a success . The Atlas V rocket took off correctly, then the Starliner capsule separated from it to continue its journey on its own … But its internal clock malfunctioned, and the capsule could not put itself in a correct orbit to reach the ISS . Instead, Starliner simply circled the Earth several times before returning to the ground two days later.

A prototype Starliner capsule after a parachute landing test, in 2011. (BLM Nevada Photo, Public Domain.)

Cargo vessel Investigation, checks, repairs, tests and retests, Covid pandemic… And here is Boeing in 2021, ready to try the experience again. Perched on its Atlas V at Cape Canaveral, the Starliner capsule has been ready to take off since last week. She should have left on Friday but an upheaval in the schedule of the astronauts of the ISS, due to the arrival a little problematic of a Russian module , postponed the launch date to this Tuesday. “We wanted to make sure we had a little leeway to properly manage the situation in the space station before bringing in another vehicle ”, explained Kathy Lueders, deputy administrator of NASA.

After take off at 19 h 20, Starliner will catch up to the orbit of the ISS less day and will moor there for a few days. The seats will remain unoccupied (apart from Rosie’s) but in order not to leave empty, the capsule will serve as a cargo vessel: the astronauts will recover there 80 kilos of equipment for the station, clothes, food… The space will also be used to come back down to Earth 260 kg of garbage cans, used equipment and scientific experiments completed.

Artist’s impression, produced in 2012, Boeing’s Starliner capsule docking with the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

As for the Rosie dummy, it will be packed with sensors to understand what the astronauts’ bodies will undergo during their flights. “Rosie gave us a valuable idea of ​​the force exerted on the commander’s seat during the first flight” in 2019, 20210730 explains Dan Niedermaier , engineer at Boeing in charge of related issues to the crew of the module. And this time, “the new sensors will collect data to characterize the movement of the four passenger seats. Overall, all seats behave similarly. But there are small differences that our engineers want to validate to ensure that everyone has a pleasant trip. ” In full configuration, Starliner should be able to carry up to seven astronauts.