We present to you Starliner, Boeing’s space taxi, which is due to take off for its first manned flight to the ISS


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Boeing's Starliner capsule returns to its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral base, in Florida (United States), on April 16, 2024. (PAUL HENNESSY / AFP)

This capsule, which intends to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, has experienced chaotic development and is belatedly making its first trip to the International Space Station with two American astronauts on board.

A launch to end a dark series? Boeing’s space capsule, Starliner, is due to be launched on Monday May 6 from the Cape Canaveral base in Florida (United States), after years of delays and multiple setbacks for the American aeronautical group. Starliner, under contract with NASA, the American space agency, will carry out its first manned test flight between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS). Franceinfo presents this machine which intends to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

It was designed to be reusable

Two astronauts, Americans Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams, are to board the Starliner spacecraft for this first manned flight.

The craft, which is 4.6 meters in diameter, can hold up to seven people, although teams boarding the ISS never have more than four members.

Members of NASA and Boeing teams work around a Starliner capsule which landed in New Mexico (United States), after an unmanned flight, on May 25, 2022. (BILL INGALLS /NASA/AFP)

The capsule, designed to be reusable up to ten times, must be sent into space on Monday using a rocket from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) group, an American company combining Boeing and Lockheed Martin, a heavyweight in the aeronautics and aerospace industry. The launcher in question is an Atlas V, a model that has proven itself.

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a Boeing Starliner capsule takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 19, 2022. (PAUL HENNESSY / ANADOLU AGENCY / AFP)

In addition to previous Starliner launches, it was notably used to bring into space the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, which operate on Mars, or the Insight probe, which listened to the seismic tremors of the red planet.

He has to go back and forth to the ISS

If Starliner arrives on the scene in 2024 with its first manned flight, its history is not recent. It all started in 2011 when NASA abandoned its shuttles to travel back and forth to the ISS. It is launching the Crew Commercial Program (CCP) to find a new way to carry out these journeys, by bringing private players into competition. The objective: to reduce costs and permanently have sovereign access to space. The idea is to always have a fallback solution, if ever a launcher is affected by any problem. In short, it’s about not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Three years later, in 2014, the American space agency selected Boeing and SpaceX to develop new space taxis responsible for transporting astronauts but also equipment and food. The stakes are high for the United States because, without their space shuttles, the Americans find themselves in a situation of dependence and must fall back on Russian Soyuz ships to get aboard the ISS.

It was quickly overtaken by SpaceX

In 2014, Boeing appears to be a safe bet against SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk in 2002. The American aeronautical group, which was founded in 1916, has been a partner of NASA for many years. For the ISS, it has even been its main partner since 1993.

But as developments progress, and unexpectedly, SpaceX is getting ahead. While Elon Musk’s firm reaps successes, Boeing must shorten a mission in 2019, Starliner failing to reach the ISS. In 2020, SpaceX passed an important threshold by carrying out its first manned flight to the ISS with its Crew Dragon capsule.

In 2021, Thomas Pesquet joins the ISS by flying aboard Crew Dragon. Boeing finds itself sending its capsule back to the factory because of problems detected with the propulsion system. It was not until May 2022 that a Starliner managed to reach the ISS safely (but without a human on board).

Relegated to the background by SpaceX, is Starliner still of interest to NASA? He “remains a high priority for the International Space Station program”said a NASA official in August 2023. “We are on the verge … of expanding our agency’s ability to travel to and from the International Space Station, and that is vitally important”declared Barry Wilmore, during a press conference before taking off aboard Starliner.

It might not survive the end of the ISS

How long will Starliner last? If the ISS must cease its activity in 2030, other (commercial) orbital stations are being studied. Among them, Orbital Reef, developed by Blue Origin (owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, boss of Amazon) and the American company Sierra Space, or that of the American company Axiom. The companies involved in Orbital Reef had discussed the possibility of using Starliner to serve their station, according to the website TheVerge.com. They will probably closely follow the progress of this first manned flight before entering into a possible partnership.

“The whole question for Boeing is whether it will succeed in selling this capacity to customers other than NASA”, analyzes Paul Wohrer, specialist in space issues at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). The researcher points out that the losses for the American manufacturer amount to just over a billion dollars on the Starliner contract with NASA. Paul Wohrer also notes that Starliner arrives at a delicate time, while United Launch Alliance will change rockets, with the deployment of its heavy launcher called Vulcan. “Boeing says the capsule is adaptable [pour un autre lanceur]but that remains to be seen.”, slips this expert. After an ignition delay, Starliner could therefore face operating problems.

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