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A Boeing Starliner docked with the International Space Station

A Boeing Starliner docked with the International Space Station

This mission, which has been awaited for years, represents a major challenge for the aviation giant and NASA.

Ten years ago, the US space agency ordered two new vehicles from the American companies Boeing and SpaceX to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). If SpaceX has already played this role as a space taxi for four years, Boeing's program is years behind schedule.

This is the first manned mission for Starliner It is intended to prove that the vehicle is safe to begin normal operations.

After taking off from Florida the day before, the spacecraft slowly approached the International Space Station on Thursday, which is located 400 kilometers above Earth and moving at a speed of about 28,000 kilometers per hour.

The docking took place at 1:34 p.m., about an hour and twenty minutes later than initially planned.

Problems with some of the ship's engines used to make small course adjustments delayed the final approach.

As many as five of these small batches, out of 28 in total, failed at some point, a commentator explained during NASA's live broadcast. But four of them were eventually restarted, providing the necessary numbers for the operation.

The ship's hatch will soon open, allowing astronauts Butch Wilmore, 61, and Sonny Williams, 58, to enter the interior of the International Space Station. They will be welcomed there by seven people already on board the flying laboratory.

A press conference with officials from NASA and Boeing is scheduled for the afternoon.

Leaks

The two astronauts must spend a little more than a week on the International Space Station, before returning to Earth on board Starliner.

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During the night from Wednesday to Thursday, NASA announced the discovery of two new helium leaks, in addition to a previously known leak, while flying on the spacecraft.

Jim May, director of Boeing, said in a message conveyed by the aerospace giant on Thursday morning that these leaks do not represent a “risk to the safety of the crew, the ship, or the mission.”

A leak was identified on one of the ship's engines before take-off. It was then decided not to repair it, because after analysis, NASA described it as “small” and considered that it did not represent a danger.

Helium is not a flammable gas, but it is used in a ship's propulsion system.

It was not immediately clear whether these leaks were related to the propellant problem encountered just before docking.

Manual driving

The empty spacecraft has already arrived at the International Space Station once in 2022, but this is the first time it has carried astronauts.

Butch Wilmore and Sonny Williams have both been to the International Space Station twice in the past and have trained for several years for this mission.

A few hours after liftoff, they temporarily manually piloted the spacecraft to test its proper performance.

“The accuracy is really unbelievable,” Butch Wilmore said in a recording transmitted by Boeing on Wednesday. “Even more so than in the simulator.”

He added: “The first six hours were absolutely amazing and exceeded our expectations.” “It's just an amazing ship.”

Development programme Starliner It was marred by multiple disappointments that led to successive postponements.

Thus, Boeing beat out SpaceX, which has already been transporting astronauts to the International Space Station since 2020.

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But NASA wants to have a second means of transportation so it can better deal with potential problems in one of the capsules or an emergency.