Starliner successfully transports 2 astronauts, but victory is not guaranteed

The Starliner has passed half of its manned flight test. The other half remains to be accomplished, which will consist of returning the two astronauts to Earth. The return flight is expected from June 18, 2024.

It has now been six days since the Starliner capsule left Earth, heading for the International Space Station (ISS). After a day of travel, the two American astronauts, Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams, were able to reach the station without incident. Since then, they have been mobilized on various tasks, which mainly consist of testing the space vehicle.

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These checks are still continuing, as noted by the American space agency in a waypoint from June 11, 2024.

Among the subjects of attention are the ability to make the Starliner a refuge in the event of a serious failure of the ISS, the habitability of the craft, the verification of the suits, the control of the batteries and the behavior of the craft during energy variations. Furthermore, the recent performances of the capsule are evaluated by the ground teams.

These tests are part of the collection of data on the Starliner system in preparation for NASA's certification of a regular crewed mission to the orbital complex “, recalled Boeing, which is leading the development of the capsule. Similar tests had already taken place in 2022, during a previous flight, but without a crew.

Successfully complete the Starliner return flight with two astronauts

To validate the Starliner's ability to carry out transport missions between Earth and the ISS, it is still necessary to demonstrate a successful return of the craft to Earth, without risk for the crew. This key phase is expected in a week, with departure from the ISS planned for June 18. However, everything will depend on the state of readiness of the ship and the weather.

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The issue of helium leaks — five in number — was discussed once again. Described as “small”, they are not considered really dangerous for the crew. On the other hand, they could have been a problem for the return flight from the International Space Station. But the latest assessments are reassuring.

iss boeing nasa
Sunita and Barry, in blue. // Source : NASA

Engineers assessed the helium reserve based on current leak rates and determined that the Starliner had sufficient margin to make the return trip », Notes Boeing. It will only take seven hours of flight to return normally. However, the capsule has enough to ensure 70 hours of flight in terms of helium stock. In addition, from now until departure, the configuration of the Starliner is such that helium leaks no longer occur.

Boeing has already returned a space capsule from the ISS, but there was no one on board at the time. For the mission planned for June, the mission will necessarily be more sensitive, because it will be necessary to ensure the safety of Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams. Ongoing checks also aim to establish the degree of fault tolerance and measures to mitigate any incident that may occur during descent.

If everything goes smoothly, qualification will be acquired for Boeing. This will not mean, however, that the company will be able to transport crews to the ISS straight away. After this second test flight, a long phase will take place to learn all the lessons and make adjustments, both hardware and software.

In the best case scenario, the first operational flight of the Starliner will not take place before early 2025.


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