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NASA prepares for critical jet thruster test on Starliner capsule

Boeing Starliner spacecraft prepares to dock with the International Space Station for the first time on Thursday, June 6, 2024. (NASA via AP)
Boeing Starliner spacecraft prepares to dock with the International Space Station for the first time on Thursday, June 6, 2024. (NASA via AP)

Mission managers for the first flight of NASA’s Starliner spacecraft, with an astronaut crew on board, are preparing to fire seven of the capsule’s eight jet thrusters. The space agency is also delaying the vehicles departure from the International Space Station again to no earlier than this coming Saturday.

The plan calls for the astronauts to fire seven of the eight rear facing thrusters on Starliner. Two bursts of one second each are planned. NASA says it’s part of the check-out process for the new spacecraft. Five of the Starliner’s orbital jets were shut down prior to docking with the International. A rocket valve problem delayed the original launch date, and a helium leak forced another launch try to be rescheduled. Mission managers have had ongoing concerns over additional helium leaks that appeared after Starliner blasted off aboard an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket. Future missions of the new vehicle will also be boosted to orbit by this type of rocket, built at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur.

"We are continuing to understand the capabilities of Starliner to prepare for the long-term goal of having it perform a six-month docked mission at the space station," said manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich.

A Tuesday teleconference is scheduled to answer more questions about how Starliner is performing prior to the planned undocking in the coming days. The capsule is designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, with the blunt heat shield pointing downward to protect the astronauts from the heat caused by friction with the air, often getting as hot as 3,000 degrees. Damage to a heat shield is blamed for the 2003 Columbia accident that destroyed the winged space plane and killed the seven astronauts on board.

After the space shuttles retired, NASA hired Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX's taxi service began in 2020. Boeing was supposed to start around the same time but was held up for years by safety concerns and other troubles.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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