NASA scrubs Boeing Starliner test after space station jolted

Boeing’s Starliner capsule, picture here, had its launch postponed after an unplanned shove by a Russian module caused a brief loss of control of the International Space Station. — NASA via AP

NASA postponed the launch of Boeing Co.’s Starliner capsule after the International Space Station got an unplanned shove from a newly arrived Russian module.

The US space agency on Thursday didn’t set a new date for the uncrewed mission, a redo of a botched test from December 2019, but is targeting Aug 3 after scrubbing Friday’s planned launch. That came after the thrusters on Russia’s Nauka module turned on unexpectedly after docking, causing a brief loss of attitude control on the station.

The orbiting lab suffered no damage and none of the seven crew members aboard was hurt.

The mishap delays Boeing’s shot at showing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that it’s ready to carry astronauts to the space station under the US agency’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA’s other contractor in the programme, Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has performed three successful missions carrying crew members.

Precarious Launch Window

Even before the incident at the station, the Starliner schedule was precarious because of the Friday weather forecast in Florida, with only a 50% chance of favorable conditions. NASA officials said this week they would look to Aug 3 and 4 as backup flight dates because of a classified operation planned for the Kennedy Space Center’s launch range on Saturday.

At the station, Russian cosmonauts were working on the new Nauka module to integrate its computers with the existing Zvedza service module when the newcomer began firing its thrusters at 12.45pm Eastern time. The disruption changed the station’s attitude by 45 degrees, NASA said, leading to a loss of attitude control for 47 minutes, said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager.

"The flight control team trains regularly on different contingencies so they trained for situations like this,” he said Thursday at a NASA news conference. "It wasn’t like we had to come up with procedures on how to operate.”

Attitude is an aviation term that refers to a craft’s position on its three axes — pitch, yaw and roll. The ISS flies in various attitudes but an unplanned one causes communication problems and can disrupt power generation if the station’s solar arrays are misaligned. It also can potentially lead to too much heat or cold on parts of the station, Montalbano said.

Communication Loss

The mishap resulted in two periods of communication loss with the Johnson Space Center in Houston, totaling 11 minutes.

During the incident, the Russian Zvedza module began firing its own thrusters to counteract the effect from the Nauka module, and Russian flight controllers subsequently used the thrusters on a Russian Progress cargo craft attached to the station to help recover the prior attitude.

Roscosmos flight controllers are reconfiguring the Nauka thrusters to prevent a recurrence, NASA said. The US space agency and Russia are investigating why the unplanned thrusting occurred.

The crew did not notice the attitude change, which was first detected by a station monitor at mission control in Houston, Montalbano said. – Bloomberg

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