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The Boeing Starliner spacecraft has arrived at the International Space Station with its astronauts, despite some obstacles

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft has arrived at the International Space Station with its astronauts, despite some obstacles

“What a wonderful place, it's great to be back here,” said smiling NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore. This is his third stay on the International Space Station (ISS), as is his colleague Sonny Williams. This first crewed Starliner mission represents a major challenge for the aerospace giant and NASA. It aims to prove that the vehicle is safe to begin regular operations.

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. If SpaceX has already played this role as a space taxi for four years, Boeing's program is years behind schedule.

“When Starliner is certified, the United States will have two systems to transport humans to the International Space Station, and no other country has that,” recalls NASA associate administrator Jim Frey. After taking off from Florida the day before, the spacecraft slowly approached the International Space Station on Thursday, at an altitude of about 400 kilometers above Earth. The docking took place at 5:34 PM GMT, about an hour and twenty minutes later than initially scheduled.

Problems with the ship's thrusters, used to make small course adjustments, delayed the final approach. NASA explained that five of these small engines, out of 28, failed at some point. But four of them were eventually restarted, providing the necessary numbers for the operation.

These driving problems shouldn't be a concern […] “The other phases of the mission,” Steve Stich, a senior NASA official, said at a news conference.

The spacecraft's door opened about two hours after docking, allowing astronauts Butch Wilmore, 61, and Sonny Williams, 58, to be greeted by the seven other people already aboard the flight laboratory — NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.

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The two Boeing passengers will have to spend just over a week on the International Space Station before returning to Earth, still aboard the Starliner.

Leaks

But another problem arose during the flight: Overnight Wednesday into Thursday, NASA announced that two new helium leaks, in addition to a previously known leak, had been discovered on the spacecraft. Steve Stitch announced that an additional leak had been identified on Thursday.

He explained that these four leaks and the problem with the payment devices “are not related at all.” One of the leaks was identified before take-off, but it was later decided not to repair it, because after analyzing it, 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. With three more emerging, “we have to look at what that means for the rest of the trip,” Steve Stitch said. “We have to have a big margin” regarding the amount of helium on board, he added.

No helium is currently being released into space, as the system has been shut down since docking. The exact cause of the two problems encountered – leaks and fuel – has not yet been determined, but these problems have been described as “minor” by Mark Nappi, a Boeing director. “We will solve it in the next mission,” he promised.

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 trained for several years for this task.

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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. It’s just an extraordinary ship,” he added.