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High-stakes Boeing capsule launch postponed due to mishap at ISS
by Paul Brinkmann
Washington DC (UPI) Jul 29, 2021

New Russian module unexpectedly fires thrusters after docking at space station
Washington DC (UPI) Jul 29, 2021 - The new Russian Nauka module for the International Space Station unexpectedly fired thrusters after docking Thursday, temporarily knocking the space station out of its normal position, NASA announced.

The problem was corrected quickly, and the people on board the space station are safe, NASA said.

"We have regained attitude control ... and work is underway to understand better what may have precipitated the inadvertent firing," which began at 12:45 p.m. EDT, a mission control announcer said.

Russian flight controllers worked quickly to send commands to other thrusters on the space station, counterbalancing the Nauka thrusters, according to NASA. Russian operators eventually shut down the thrusters on the 22-ton, 43-foot-long module.

The space station had been knocked out of its normal attitude by about 45 degrees before the problem was corrected, NASA said.

The problem prompted NASA to postpone Friday's launch of the Boeing Starliner test flight to the space station.

"It just doesn't make a lot of sense to send another vehicle the station's way, while they had this event and so we're working together and figure out what caused this," Steve Stich, NASA manager for the Commercial Crew Program, said during a press conference Thursday.

By late Thursday afternoon, mission controllers in Moscow had reconfigured the Nauka module to prevent further firing of its thrusters, said NASA's Joel Montalban, program manager for the space station.

"The team operated according to established procedures. It wasn't like we had to come up with procedures or anything. The team knows what to do and how to operate, and that's what they did today," Montalban said in the press conference.

The module had just arrived at the space station Thursday after years of delays and problems on the ground during manufacturing.

Boeing and NASA postponed the launch the company's Starliner space capsule to the International Space Station on Friday after a mishap at the orbital laboratory on Thursday.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket had been scheduled to launch the capsule on an uncrewed test flight from Florida. But a new Russian module, Nauka, created a brief crisis at the space station when the module's thrusters began to fire unexpectedly it docked Thursday morning.

Russian flight controllers quickly quelled the problem by igniting the space station's main thrusters and subsequently shut off the errant Nauka thrusters. NASA said there was no danger to the crew at any time.

"The launch ... has been delayed due to the situation on board the International Space Station," launch company ULA announced Thursday afternoon. "The combined NASA, Boeing and ULA teams are working to determine the next launch attempt."

NASA said Thursday afternoon that the launch now could come as early as Aug. 3, but that remained uncertain.

Boeing must show that Starliner can fly astronauts safely to the International Space Station in the uncrewed test.

The company's previous Starliner test flight in December 2019 failed to reach the orbiting laboratory because of software problems, putting the Starliner program far behind SpaceX's Crew Dragon program.

If successful, Boeing's Starliner would provide similar astronaut ferrying service as SpaceX's Dragon capsule began in May 2020. But if Starliner fails again, NASA would be left -- at least temporarily -- with only SpaceX as a provider in a program designed to be competitive.

"It's a very important flight for the Commercial Crew Program, having our second space transportation system available to carry crew to space," Steve Stich, NASA's manager for the commercial crew program, said Tuesday in a press conference. "This flight will test many of the important systems on the vehicle."

If Boeing's spacecraft reaches the space station successfully, NASA will run a series of tests and then return the capsule several days later to a parachute-assisted landing in the western United States.

Boeing ran hundreds of simulations before and after the failed 2019 test flight, said John Vollmer, the company's program manager for Starliner.

Boeing made major changes to software and software simulations after the capsule failed to pick up the correct elapsed mission time from the rocket in 2019. That resulted in a series of mistakes as the capsule's software burned fuel needlessly, Boeing and NASA previously found.

"The biggest change in software was in the communications coding," Vollmer said. Those changes included new safeguards that would ensure the capsule would seek new communications connections if such connections were lost, and to ensure "an antenna is pointed back at Earth" after the capsule separates from the rocket, he said.

NASA classified the previous test failure as a "high visibility close call," the lowest category NASA uses for serious mission problems. Boeing agreed to a lengthy checklist of fixes and checkouts before Starliner would fly again.

Boeing should be worried about the test, said Marco Cáceres, space analyst for the Teal Group based in Fairfax, Va.

"It's really clear that SpaceX has become the establishment player," Cáceres said. "NASA is getting very accustomed and comfortable with SpaceX's culture, and my gut feeling is if Boeing doesn't get this totally right, they're done, in terms of providing launch services for NASA."

And yet, NASA very much wants a second option for reaching the space station, he said.

"I think NASA is rooting for Boeing and hoping it goes well and hoping they can rely on two providers," Cáceres said. "History shows that NASA loses if there's only one big company they can rely on for something. The space program thrives with competition."

NASA also could use the leverage of having two astronaut spacecraft in negotiations with Russia, he said. NASA has been purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for up to $80 million to reach the space station.

"Russia has had an ace in the hole by selling Soyuz seats to NASA, but with two providers, with Boeing, there's no chance NASA would pay one penny to Russia for launch services again," Cáceres said.

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What you need to know about Starliner's Test-2
Kennedy Space Center FL (SPX) Jul 27, 2021
NASA and Boeing are taking another major step on the path to regular human spaceflight launches to the International Space Station on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil with the second uncrewed flight test of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. NASA's Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is targeting launch of the Starliner spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 2:53 p.m. EDT Friday, July 30, from Space Launch Complex-41 on ... read more

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