Until recently, only space company SpaceX could transport astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station. Boeing wants to change that. Last Thursday, the company tested its Starliner spacecraft: Starliner headed to the ISS unmanned. On Saturday morning, the craft successfully docked with the space station.
Starliner lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday, May 19, atop an Atlas V rocket. It arrived at the ISS nearly 24 hours after launch. Now that the test mission has been successful, it means the end of SpaceX’s monopoly – previously the only company that could send astronauts from American soil into orbit.
The Starliner spacecraft completed its journey despite problems with the thrusters. Two of the twelve thrusters failed when Starliner maneuvered into orbit. That didn’t turn out to be a big deal: backup thrusters kept the spacecraft going.
In search of the solution
The system is designed to rely on spare parts, Boeing program manager Mark Nappi said at a press conference May 19. “He played as he should. We have a safe vehicle.
Starliner has had a checkered past. In 2019, the craft failed to reach the ISS. A faulty clock then prevented the rocket’s thrusters from igniting properly past the moment of liftoff. Another launch was planned for 2021, but it turned out hours before launch that the valves had been affected by the weather. The launch was later postponed to May 19, 2022.
“Bringing a new spacecraft into space is always a challenge,” said space expert Libby Jackson of the UK Space Agency. †[Ruimtevaartbedrijven] perform tests to identify potential problems. They don’t go to the launch pad without making sure they’re ready.
Now that Starliner has reached the ISS, Boeing is the second commercial company to be able to take American astronauts into space. Starliner’s first manned launch will take place later this year.
SpaceX first brought two astronauts to the ISS in May 2020, aboard the Crew Dragon capsule. Since then, eight astronauts have been transported by SpaceX for two more missions.
In 2018, the Russian Soyuz rocket was the only way to access the ISS. When the rocket had problems, there was a risk that the astronauts would find themselves temporarily “stranded” on the space station. For the American space agency NASA, this was partly the reason for the revival of the commercial space sector: they did not want to be completely dependent on Russia. The invasion of Ukraine makes this more relevant than ever.
“If you have two different ways to enter space, if there are issues with either one, you have another option.” [om op terug te vallen]Jackson said. “It’s really important to make sure we can continue to use the International Space Station safely.”
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