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Boeing tries again to launch its Starliner capsule to the space station – here’s what’s at stake

Boeing tries again to launch its Starliner capsule to the space station - here's what's at stake
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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on board is seen as it rolls out to the launch pad for the OFT-2 mission due to lift off on May 19, 2022.

Joel Kowsky | Nasa

Boeing is about to make another attempt to reach the International Space Station with his Starliner vsapsule Thursday, nearly 2 and a half years after the failure of the company’s first mission.

Boeing developed its Starliner spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew program after winning nearly $5 billion in contracts to build the capsule. The company competes under the program with by Elon Musk SpaceX, which has completed development of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and is now on his fourth operational manned spaceflight for NASA.

Boeing’s development of Starliner has encountered several obstacles over the past three years.

Its first uncrewed mission in December 2019, called Orbital Flight Test (OFT), terminated prematurely after a software malfunction saw the pod end up in the wrong orbit. NASA noted earlier this year, after an investigation into the issue, that Boeing’s software development “was an area where we perhaps didn’t have as much insight and oversight as we should have had.” .

Boeing attempted to launch the second Orbital Flight Test, or OFT-2, in August, but the company discovered a problem with the propulsion valve while the spacecraft was still on the ground. Thirteen of the 24 oxidation valves that control Starliner’s movement in space became blocked after launch site humidity caused corrosion, and the spacecraft’s service module was replaced.

Boeing has now applied sealant to the valves and is expected to make another launch attempt of OFT-2 Thursday at 6:54 p.m. ET.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will carry Starliner to orbit, when it begins a 24-hour journey before docking with the ISS. The mission should last a few days in total before the capsule returns to Earth.

The US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts conditions will likely be clear for launch, with the potential for disruption from scattered thunderstorms around Cape Canaveral in Florida. A backup launch time is scheduled for Friday, but the weather is expected to deteriorate that day.

Boeing’s Crucial Test

The Launch Complex-41 crew access arm moves into place for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft prior to the launch of the OFT-2 mission, scheduled for May 19, 2022.

Joel Kowsky | Nasa

The aerospace giant was once considered equal to SpaceX in the race to launch NASA astronauts. Yet delays in Starliner development have steadily set Boeing back, both in terms of schedule and finances.

Due to the fixed-price nature of its contract with NASA, Boeing has absorbed the cost of additional work on the capsule, with the company spending $595 million to date.

NASA took last year the rare astronaut reassignment move from Starliner to SpaceX crew dragon. The space agency also announced plans last year to purchase three more crewed flights from SpaceX, which would put Musk’s company on track to potentially complete its initial six-flight contract with NASA before Starliner. does his first.

If Thursday’s OFT-2 launch is successful, Boeing would then prepare for a crewed flight test that would see the first astronauts fly Starliner.

Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi told a pre-launch press conference that the company “could potentially be ready” for crewed flight “by the end of this year.” Yet the company is considering whether to rethink the Aerojet Rocketdyne-made jokes about Starliner, which could still delay it.

NASA Commercial Crew Manager Steve Stich said the agency doesn’t consider a redesign of the Starliner valves “a big deal from a certification standpoint.” NASA would work with Boeing to “determine what kind of testing needs to take place” in the event of a redesign, Stich noted, with a timeline still undefined for “how long it would take.”

“I personally would love to see Starliner fly beyond 2030. I would love to see Dragon fly beyond 2030. NASA has made a huge investment in both of these vehicles and they are great platforms to go into. low Earth orbit,” Stich said.

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