NASA and Boeing plan second Starliner test flight

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Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is set for another unmanned test trip to the International Space Station, with the company and the agency expressing confidence in the spacecraft despite previous issues.

On May 18, the Starliner spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, rolled out to Space Launch Complex 41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft will launch on the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission at 6:54 p.m. EST on May 19.

During pre-launch briefings here, NASA and Boeing officials said they weren’t addressing any technical issues ahead of launch, and weather forecasts call for a 70% chance of acceptable launch conditions. A backup launch opportunity is available May 20 at 6:32 p.m. EST, although the weather forecast calls for only a 30% chance of acceptable weather.

According to the mission plan, Starliner will dock at the station approximately 24 hours after takeoff. It will stay there for several days for testing before undocking and landing at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. The mission will last 5-10 days, partly depending on weather conditions at the landing site.

This mission comes almost two and a half years after the original OFT mission in December 2019. The spacecraft suffered problems immediately after its separation from the rocket because a mission event timer in the spacecraft was incorrectly set. Engineers also discovered a software glitch that could have caused the spacecraft’s service module to return to the crew module after separation just before reentry, fixing it with only hours to spare.

This will be OFT-2’s second launch attempt. The initial launch in August 2021 was scrubbed hours before liftoff when the spacecraft’s service module thruster valves failed to open when commanded. Engineers found that the valves had corroded, causing a long-term delay in the mission. NASA and Boeing later concluded that the nitrogen tetroxide propellant, seeping through the valve’s Teflon seal, reacted with ambient humidity to create nitric acid which corroded the aluminum components of the valve.

The OFT-2 mission will confirm that these issues have been resolved. Mark Nappi, vice president and head of the commercial crew program at Boeing, said in a May 17 briefing that spacecraft controllers routinely spin valves to make sure they don’t corrode. “They all ran nominally, so we’re in good shape,” he said.

The spacecraft will also perform tests that the truncated OFT mission could not, including approaching and docking with the ISS. “We will pay attention to the artificial vision system, called VESTA, which we did not have the chance to see in action during the first orbital flight test,” said Mike Fincke, a NASA astronaut who is part of those who train. for future Starliner missions, during a briefing on May 18. VESTA, or Vision-based Electro-optical Sensor Tracking Assembly, helps the spacecraft identify the space station and approach it.

There will be tests once Starliner docks with the station, including the work of space station astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines. Fincke said they will test various Starliner systems, such as communication handsets and microphones. “There are many things with the interface with the International Space Station that the crew of the space station will help us with.” A successful OFT-2 mission would allow NASA to conduct a test flight with astronauts on board, called Crew Flight Test (CFT). This could be launched as soon as the end of the year, although agency officials were reluctant during pre-launch briefings to set a timetable for the CFT.

“We are preparing our crewed flight test vehicle by the end of the year,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said on May 18. This schedule will depend on both the resolution of problems that arise on OFT-2 as well as the schedule of other ISS missions. “We need to make sure there’s nothing to fix or update on the spacecraft that we expect to have ready by the end of the year, and then lay out the full schedule for everyone “, she said, adding that the agency should know this summer both the timetable for the CFT as well as who will pilot it and how long the mission will last.

There may still be work to do even after a successful OFT-2 mission. At a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee on May 12, committee member David West warned that Boeing’s work certifying Starliner’s parachutes was overdue, but did not give details. . He also said the panel was concerned that Boeing’s workforce in the program was “particularly low,” especially given the amount of work required to prepare for the CFT mission after OFT-2. Nappi said on May 17 that he believed the panel’s concerns related to the certification of operational or post-certification missions after the CFT. “We have tests planned for this summer with NASA” on the parachutes, he said. “The results of this will obviously lead to certification.”

Butch Wilmore, another NASA astronaut training for early Starliner missions, expressed confidence in the spacecraft despite past issues and the possibility of new problems, or “unknown unknowns,” on this mission. “We wouldn’t be here right now if we weren’t confident that this mission would be successful,” he said during a May 18 briefing alongside Fincke and Suni Williams, another astronaut from the Nasa. “We are ready,” he said. “This spacecraft is ready. These teams are ready. Boeing is ready. ULA is ready. The mission operations managers who will control the spacecraft in space are ready and we are excited.

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