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America.  Starliner, the second taxi to space

America. Starliner, the second taxi to space

Will SpaceX's Monopoly End Soon? Boeing's Starliner is set to make its first unmanned flight this Monday, two years behind schedule – a week-long mission that could certify the second US ship capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). )

On this inaugural flight, there will be only two people: Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. These experienced NASA astronauts, veterans of the US Navy, have already visited the ISS several times with an American space shuttle or a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Monday's experience promises to be very different. “I don't think any of us ever dreamed of being associated with the first flight of a brand new space shuttle,” said Butch Wilmore, who has been in isolation since late last month at Kennedy Space Center.

Departs Cape Canaveral, Florida at 10:34pm this Monday (4:34am in Paris on Tuesday). This is the first time a manned capsule has been launched by an Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) team. During this inaugural flight, many tests will be carried out, sometimes forcing the astronauts to perform manual maneuvers. The spacecraft is due to dock with the ISS on Wednesday morning (around 7am in Paris). Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams would stay there for a week, continue to examine the capsule, and then return to Earth with it. Eight days after liftoff, the Starliner is expected to deploy its parachutes in the desert region of the American Southwest.

Two vessels for greater security

This final Starliner test flight, before it resumes regular operations next spring, is critical to Boeing's reputation, which has been in turmoil after a series of scandals over the safety of its planes. Ordered by NASA ten years ago, the spacecraft's development has been marked by a series of unpleasant surprises and delays. In 2019, during the first unmanned test, Starliner failed to keep on track and returned without reaching the ISS. Then, in 2021, when the rocket was already on the launch pad, a valve problem led to a postponement. The empty spacecraft was finally able to reach the ISS in May 2022.

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For NASA, too, the stakes are high. Having a second vehicle with SpaceX to carry American astronauts is “very important,” underlined Dana Weigel, who is in charge of the ISS program. This capability will make it possible to better respond to “different emergency situations,” for example, if one of the ships has trouble, he added.

Four years later SpaceX

Starliner is expected to be the sixth US space shuttle to be launched by astronauts. SpaceX's Dragon capsule has already joined this exclusive club in 2020, behind older projects like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Space Shuttle series. Once Starliner is operational, NASA intends to alternate between SpaceX and Boeing aircraft to transport its astronauts to the ISS. The first official Starliner mission is already planned for spring 2025 with two American astronauts and one Canadian.

In 2014, the US space agency signed a contract worth 4.2 billion with Boeing and 2.6 billion with SpaceX – the only capability Russia has since the United States retired from its shuttle fleet in 2011. Eric Seedhouse, associate professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle University, recalled, “Everyone thought Boeing was going to get there first. That SpaceX hit before the Starliner was too embarrassing for Boeing. »

Although the ISS is slated to retire by 2030, the Dragon-like Starliner could be used to transport humans to future private space stations that many companies already plan to build.