Starliner flight is a big milestone for Boeing’s space capsule, but many obstacles remain

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft achieved a crucial feat last week with the delivery of two astronauts to the International Space Station, but problems encountered during its journey into space and other obstacles that ‘waiting makes the aerospace giant’s goal of routine missions distant. perspective.

The first crewed docking of the CST-100 Starliner capsule with two astronauts at the International Space Station on Thursday marked a safety demonstration long sought by two audiences: NASA, which wants a second U.S. spacecraft for orbit travel, and the emerging market for private astronauts. missions which are currently dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Crew Dragon capsule.

But before Boeing can reduce SpaceX’s hold on government and private orbital human spaceflight, its Starliner still has several test targets to meet.

“This is a crucial step, because if they can’t get humans into space and bring them back safely, then they won’t have proven what they need to do to carry out missions.” , said Patricia Sanders, who until February was the longtime chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee.

The crew — veteran astronauts and test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams — could return to Earth as early as June 14 or stay there for up to 45 days, NASA officials said.

During Starliner’s 24-hour journey to reach the orbiting space station about 240 miles (386 km) above, the gumball-shaped spacecraft sprung four helium leaks and five onboard thrusters died, delaying its docking to the ISS.

“Starliner made us work a little harder to be docked,” NASA commercial team leader Steve Stich said at a news conference Thursday evening.

But some accomplishments include Wilmore taking manual control and testing the steering, overall mission security and the craft docking autonomously to the station. Over the next few days, Starliner will aim to show that it can undock, maneuver further, and then return safely to Earth.

Still, helium leaks and propulsion failures, while posing no danger to astronauts, NASA officials said, remain a lingering concern.

Boeing first discovered a helium leak – used to add pressure to the booster’s thrusters – while Starliner was on the ground last month, and NASA officials deemed it low risk for flight . NASA officials said the thruster failures appeared similar to those found during the Starliner’s 2022 uncrewed test to the ISS.

“We don’t really understand why this is happening,” Stich said.

Boeing announced plans to redesign the Starliner’s propulsion system valves after the company and NASA identified a flaw in 2022. And the company receives $5.5 million from NASA to study a possible battery redesign of the Starliner, according to federal contract records.

“If they had something that required a design change that was going to be costly and time-consuming, that could impact their business decision to move forward,” Sanders said.

The Starliner’s development challenges have already cost Boeing about $1.5…

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