Watch Boeing launch its spaceship on a do-over flight to prove it can transport astronauts for NASA

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 4
A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will attempt to redeem itself this week, after botching its last major test flight.

The company’s eventual goal is to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the way SpaceX already does. Both companies developed their launch systems through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to private companies in order to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.

But before carrying people, the Starliner has to complete an uncrewed test flight to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s certification process. Boeing first attempted this flight in December 2019, but it turned out that one of the spaceship’s clocks was set 11 hours ahead of schedule. The clock prompted the spaceship’s engines to fire too vigorously, too early – a move meant to come at a later stage of the mission.

That caused the spaceship to burn through 25% of its fuel, forcing Boeing to skip docking with the space station in order to save the Starliner from total failure.

Now, the company is confident that it has fixed the problems with its spaceship, so it’s time for the do-over.

“Now’s the right time. This team is ready to go, this vehicle is ready to go,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing last week.

Watch Starliner launch live

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight test oft launch pad cape canaveral launch 6NHQ201912200021_orig
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41 on December 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, is set to launch on Tuesday at 1:20 p.m. ET. Starliner will blast off atop an Atlas V rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA plans to broadcast the whole thing, below, starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

If all goes according to plan, the Atlas V booster should fall away after about four minutes. That leaves the rocket’s upper stage to give Starliner one final push into Earth’s orbit before it, too, separates from the capsule. Starliner should orbit Earth alone overnight, slowly lining itself up to meet the ISS the next day.

“That’s the part of this flight that, to me, is so critical: docking with station and then also, on the back end as well, going through that whole undock sequence,” Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing.

If the spaceship successfully latches onto a port on the ISS, astronauts on the station will then open its hatch and unload its cargo – science equipment and supplies. After that, the Starliner is scheduled to stay docked to the ISS to test out its systems and its endurance in space, until it returns to Earth a few days later.

The launch was originally set for Friday afternoon, but had to be delayed after a mishap on the ISS. Russia’s new module, Nauka, fired its engines unexpectedly after docking to the station on Thursday, which rotated the ISS 45 degrees. Flight controllers regained control about an hour later.

“We wanted to make sure we had some breathing room to fully assess the situation on station before adding another vehicle,” Lueders said in a briefing on Thursday.

Boeing’s investigation into the failed flight revealed further problems

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship space capsule nasa commercial crew program ccp orbiting earth illustration 317188 33_CST_Flip_fr01_
An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

During Boeing’s test flight in 2019, the early engine fire prompted the company’s engineers to quickly review the spacecraft’s software while Starliner was orbiting Earth. In doing so, they discovered and patched another issue – not the clock error – that could have been catastrophic.

As Starliner prepares to fall back to Earth, it’s supposed to shed its service module – a cylinder containing the spaceship’s main engines. That part is meant to fall away from the crew module, which holds the astronauts.

But this second software error could have led the service module to bounce back and crash into the crew module. That could have sent the astronauts’ capsule tumbling or significantly damaged its protective heat shield, making it unsafe to plow through the atmosphere.

The discovery of this issue prompted a NASA investigation into Boeing’s coding and overall safety culture. NASA administrators at the time said the software issue was likely a symptom of larger problems at the company. But now, Stich said, “Boeing has an excellent safety culture.”

Boeing has fixed both issues and changed some of the spaceship’s communications software.

“There’s always a little bit of that trepidation in you,” Stich said. “This is spaceflight. The Atlas is a great vehicle. Starliner is a great vehicle. But we know how hard it is, and it’s a test flight as well. And I fully expect we’ll learn something on this test flight.”

Why NASA needs Boeing

Assuming Starliner can make it to the ISS and back without major issues, its next step will be to do that again with astronauts onboard – a crewed test flight. If everything goes smoothly, that flight could launch by the end of this year, Stich said.

boeing starliner space capsule lowered on cables to rocket
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is stacked atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 17, 2021.

NASA is relying on both Boeing and SpaceX to replace the government-developed Space Shuttle, which stopped flying in 2011. After that, NASA relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed the agency’s tests, flying its first astronauts to the ISS last year. SpaceX has flown two full crews since then.

NASA hopes to add Starliner to its fleet soon so that the agency is no longer reliant on just one launch system.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on July 28, 2021.

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Russia’s new space-station module fired its engines in error, pushing the entire station into an hour-long spin

nauka module spaceship with solar array wings approaches international space station
A screenshot from NASA’s livestream shows the Nauka module approaching its port on the International Space Station, July 29, 2021.

A new Russian space-station module malfunctioned after it docked on Thursday. The module, called Nauka, starting unexpectedly firing its thrusters – which moved the entire station out of position.

The long-awaited science module had already encountered several technical issues on its way to the ISS, but once it docked to the space station on Thursday morning, it seemed to be in the clear. Then about three hours after its arrival – at about 12:34 p.m. ET – Nauka suddenly began firing its thrusters.

Astronauts on the ISS told flight controllers they were seeing something strange out their windows. Space journalist Anatoly Zak was among the first to notice their observations.

“Numerous particles are also seen outside the station indicating either major propellant leak or gas vent,” Zak tweeted.

In response to the glitch, flight controllers began firing thrusters on two other parts of the Russian side of the ISS, including the service module, in what they called a “tug of war” to get the station back into its normal position.

By 1:30 p.m. ET, ISS flight controllers announced that Nauka’s thrusters had finally stopped firing and they had regained control of the station’s positioning. Over that hour, Nauka had rotated the station by 45 degrees.

“All other station systems are operating perfectly,” NASA said Thursday afternoon. “None of the other appendages were damaged in any way.”

A helium leak could be to blame for the malfunction

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A Proton-M rocket carrying the Nauka module blasts off from the launchpad at Russia’s space facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, July 21, 2021.

A sudden loss of control over the space station’s orientation is “not a common occurrence,” NASA said, adding that there are procedures in place to fix such an issue when it does arise. Occasionally, flight controllers deliberately change the ISS’s orientation to avoid oncoming space debris, or make it easier for a spacecraft to successfully dock at the station.

The ISS crew is not in danger and never was, according to flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Currently there are two cosmonauts, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, aboard the station, as well as and five astronauts: Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, and Mark Vande Hei of NASA.

“It’s safe to say the remainder of the day is no longer going to happen as scheduled, of course,” a flight controller told the ISS astronauts Thursday afternoon. Controllers asked them to check the station’s starboard, or right, side to see if there was any damage to the station’s exterior or floating debris.

So far, the astronauts have reported nothing amiss. They didn’t even feel the station moving during the incident, according to ISS program manager Joel Montalbano.

“You asked the crew, ‘Hey, did the space station shake or anything like that?’ And the response was negative,” he said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon.

Montalbano added that he’s “not too worried” given that the station’s maximum spin speed was about half a degree per second.

It’s not yet clear what caused the engines to fire out of turn. But Zak wrote that Russia’s mission control discovered a helium gas leak in one or two of Nauka’s tanks, which may have comprised the thrusters’ operation.

Around 2:15 p.m. ET, Russian flight controllers confirmed with NASA that they had disabled the errant thrusters.

Zak also reported that Nauka has used up all the propellant available to its thrusters, so there’s no chance of another “tug of war.”

A dramatic docking

ISS The International Space Station as of Oct. 4, 2018
The International Space Station photographed in November 2018.

Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.

The module expands the Russian side of the ISS, adding more science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. It also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.

But Nauka didn’t have a smooth journey into orbit. Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka failed to fire its main engines and push itself to a higher altitude. Russian mission controllers had to instruct the 43-foot-long, 2.5-ton module to fire its backup thrusters to get back on course.

After Nauka successfully docked on Thursday, the two ISS cosmonauts started checking for leaks, preparing to open the module’s hatch, and integrating the module into the station’s power and computer systems.

But after the engines started firing, flight controllers advised the ISS crew to keep the hatch closed and to close the station’s 1.5-inch-thick windows.

NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, will spend the next few days investigating the incident. Roscosmos will take the lead on analyzing Nauka, while NASA will focus on assessing space-station structures for any signs of damage.

“We’ll have a quick look done by the end of the day tomorrow,” Montalbano said. “That’ll tell us if we have any poke-outs that we’re worried about that we want to go and look at.”

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NASA has delayed Boeing’s spaceship flight after a Russian module pushed the space station out of position

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship space capsule nasa commercial crew program ccp orbiting earth illustration 317188 33_CST_Flip_fr01_
An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

A major mishap on the International Space Station has forced NASA and Boeing to delay the company’s planned spaceship flight.

Boeing was set to launch its spacecraft, called Starliner, toward the ISS on Friday afternoon and dock there on Saturday. This mission is meant to be Starliner’s last test flight before carrying its first astronauts. Boeing attempted this demonstration flight once before, in December 2019, but failed to reach the ISS due to software issues. Now the company is trying again, hoping to prove to NASA that Starliner is ready to fly astronauts.

But Boeing will have to wait just a little longer.

That’s because Russia added a new module to the ISS on Thursday, then immediately encountered major technical issues. The new module, called Nauka, starting unexpectedly firing its thrusters just hours after arriving at the ISS – which moved the entire station out of position.

nauka module spaceship with solar array wings approaches international space station
A screenshot from NASA’s livestream shows the Nauka module approaching its port on the International Space Station, July 29, 2021.

NASA announced on Thursday afternoon that it had decided to delay Boeing’s Starliner launch. The next opportunity to launch is on Tuesday, August 3.

“We wanted to make sure we had some breathing room to fully assess the situation on station before adding another vehicle,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing on Thursday.

Boeing is one of two companies – SpaceX is the other – that NASA has funded to develop human-spaceflight systems. Both NASA and Boeing are determined to finish Starliner’s test flights and start using the spaceship to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.

Before SpaceX’s Crew Dragon completed its test flights last year, NASA could only use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly its astronauts. Starliner’s next flight is critical to giving the agency more options.

Nauka encountered technical issues on the ground and in space

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A specialist at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre works on preparations of the Nauka module, July 31, 2020.

Russia originally planned to add Nauka to the ISS in 2007, but technical issues delayed its development on the ground. Nauka finally launched on July 21, but it immediately encountered technical problems. It didn’t complete the first engine burn that was supposed to push it into a higher orbit above Earth, so Russian flight controllers had to initiate several smaller burns to push it onto the right path.

The long-awaited science module finally docked to the ISS at 9:29 a.m. ET on Thursday. It latched onto the correct ISS port and sealed itself. Cosmonauts began preparing to open the hatch connecting the module to the station.

But three hours later, at about 12:34 p.m. ET, Nauka suddenly began firing its engines. It took flight controllers about an hour to get the ISS back under control, after playing “tug of war” by firing engines on another part of the station.

The thrusters rotated the ISS by 45 degrees before NASA and Russian flight controllers regained control.

“It’s safe to say the remainder of the day is no longer going to happen as scheduled, of course,” a flight controller told the ISS astronauts.

NASA says the astronauts on the ISS were never in danger.

Currently there are two cosmonauts, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, and five astronauts aboard the station: Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, and Mark Vande Hei of NASA.

Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.

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Russia has docked its new science module to the International Space Station, after 14 years of delays

nauka module spaceship with solar array wings approaches international space station
A screenshot from NASA’s livestream shows the Nauka module approaching its port on the International Space Station, July 29, 2021.

Russia has finally delivered a long-awaited science module to the International Space Station.

The new module, a 43-foot-long cylinder called Nauka (meaning “science” in Russian), approached the ISS on Thursday morning. The spaceship inched forward slowly, aligning itself exactly with the ISS port that was waiting to receive it. Its docking system met the port at 9:29 a.m. ET and locked into place, forming a seal so that cosmonauts could open the hatch and access their new facilities.

Nauka gives the Russian side of the ISS expanded science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. It also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.

The module was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.

“This is a very difficult and important victory for us,” Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said on Twitter after docking.

NASA broadcasted live footage of Nauka docking to the ISS on Thursday morning. Watch the video below.

The new module is not fully integrated into the ISS yet, though. Cosmonauts will need to conduct about 11 spacewalks to set up electronics on the outside of the module, according to Spaceflight Now.

Russia’s old module burned up in Earth’s atmosphere

To clear a port for Nauka, Russia’s 20-year-old Pirs docking station detached from the ISS on Saturday. Pirs first arrived at the space station in 2001, and it has served as a receiving station for cargo-carrying Progress capsules and astronaut-ferrying Soyuz spaceships.

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A Russian Progress cargo spaceship, docked to the Pirs docking compartment on the International Space Station’s Russian segment, June 2, 2021.

After Pirs undocked, a Progress spacecraft towed it into Earth’s atmosphere. As gravity pulled the old module down, the bulk of it burned up in the atmosphere. The parts that survived fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Nauka had mid-flight issues on its way to the ISS

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A Proton-M rocket carrying the Nauka module blasts off from the launchpad at Russia’s space facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, July 21, 2021.

Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), didn’t have a smooth journey to the ISS.

Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka started malfunctioning. It didn’t complete the first engine burn that was supposed to push it into a higher orbit above Earth. The module needed to gain altitude so that gravity wouldn’t pull it into the atmosphere, where it would burn up. So Russian mission controllers instructed the module to fire its backup thrusters to push itself higher.

man in white lab coat stands in front of nauka module port opening in lab room
A specialist of the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre works on preparations of the Nauka module, July 31, 2020.

Over the next few days, Nauka fired its thrusters several times to move into the right orbital path. Those “corrective maneuvers” put it on track to reach the ISS.

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on July 28, 2021.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Russia is set to dock a long-awaited new module to the space station on Thursday

man in white lab coat stands in front of nauka module port opening in lab room
A specialist at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center works on preparations of the Nauka module, July 31, 2020.

Russia is finally ready to attach a long-awaited science module to the International Space Station.

The new module, a 43-foot-long cylinder called Nauka (meaning “science” in Russian), is currently orbiting Earth and making its way towards the station. It will give the Russian side of the ISS expanded science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. Nauka also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.

The module was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.

To clear a port for Nauka, Russia’s 20-year-old Pirs docking station detached from the ISS on Saturday. Pirs first arrived at the space station in 2001, and it has served as a receiving station for cargo-carrying Progress capsules and astronaut-ferrying Soyuz spaceships.

russian progress spaceship docked to international space station
A Russian Progress cargo spaceship, docked to the International Space Station’s Russian segment, June 2, 2021.

After Pirs undocked, a Progress spacecraft towed it into Earth’s atmosphere. As gravity pulled the old module down, the bulk of it burned up in the atmosphere. The parts that survived fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Now that Pirs’ old port is open, Nauka is scheduled to dock there on Thursday morning at 9:24 a.m. ET. The high-stakes maneuver must be executed perfectly: The spaceship must align exactly with the port in order to lock into place and form a seal so that cosmonauts can open the hatch and access their new facilities.

If all that is successful, the ISS cosmonauts will then need to conduct about 11 spacewalks to set up electronics on the outside of the new module, according to Spaceflight Now.

Nauka had mid-flight issues on its way to the ISS

proton m rocket fires engines blasts off from launchpad carrying nauka module
A Proton-M rocket carrying the Nauka module blasts off from the launchpad at Russia’s space facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, July 21, 2021.

Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), hasn’t had a smooth journey to the ISS.

Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka started malfunctioning. It didn’t complete the first engine burn that was supposed to push it into a higher orbit above Earth. The module needed to gain altitude so that gravity wouldn’t pull it into the atmosphere, where it would burn up. So Russian mission controllers instructed the module to fire its backup thrusters to push itself higher.

Over the last few days, it’s fired its thrusters several times to move into the right orbital path.

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The Nauka module is assembled at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, April 9, 2021.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced Wednesday morning that Nauka had successfully performed its “final corrective maneuver,” putting it on track to reach the ISS.

Watch Nauka dock to the space station live

NASA plans to broadcast live footage of Nauka docking to the ISS on Thursday morning, starting at 8:30 a.m. ET. Watch the livestream via the embed below.

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Boeing will once again try to fly its spaceship to the space station for NASA on Friday, after failing its first attempt

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 4
A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

On Friday, Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will attempt to redeem itself after botching its last major test flight.

The company’s eventual goal is to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the way SpaceX already does. Both companies developed their launch systems through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to private companies in order to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.

But before carrying people, the Starliner has to complete an uncrewed test flight to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s certification process. Boeing first attempted this flight in December 2019, but it turned out that one of the spaceship’s clocks was set 11 hours ahead of schedule. That prompted the spaceship to fire its engines too vigorously, too early – a move meant to come at a later stage of the mission. That caused the spaceship to burn through 25% of its fuel, forcing Boeing to skip docking with the space station in order to save the Starliner from total failure.

Now, the company is confident that it has fixed the problems with its spaceship, so it’s time for the do-over.

“Now’s the right time. This team is ready to go, this vehicle is ready to go,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing on Thursday.

Boeing must show NASA its spaceship can reach the space station

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight test oft launch pad cape canaveral launch 6NHQ201912200021_orig
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41 on December 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Starliner is set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket at 2:53 p.m. ET on Friday – assuming thunderstorms don’t force a delay. The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will send the rocket and capsule roaring into the skies above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

If all goes according to plan, the Atlas V booster should fall away after about four minutes. That would leave the rocket’s upper stage to give Starliner one final push into Earth’s orbit before it, too, separates from the capsule. Starliner should orbit Earth alone overnight, slowly lining itself up to meet the ISS the next day.

“That’s the part of this flight that, to me, is so critical: docking with station and then also, on the back end as well, going through that whole undock sequence,” Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing on Tuesday.

If the spaceship successfully latches onto a port on the ISS, astronauts on the station will then open its hatch and unload its cargo – science equipment and supplies. After that, the Starliner is scheduled to stay docked to the ISS to test out its systems and its endurance in space, until it returns to Earth on August 5.

Boeing’s investigation into the failed flight revealed further problems

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship space capsule nasa commercial crew program ccp orbiting earth illustration 317188 33_CST_Flip_fr01_
An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

During Boeing’s test flight in 2019, the early engine fire prompted the company’s engineers to quickly review the spacecraft’s software while Starliner was orbiting Earth. In doing so, they discovered and patched another issue – not the clock error – that could have been catastrophic.

As Starliner prepares to fall back to Earth, it’s supposed to shed its service module – a cylinder containing the spaceship’s main engines. That part is supposed to fall away from the crew module, which holds the astronauts.

But this second software error could have caused the service module to bounce back and crash into the crew module. That could have sent the astronauts’ capsule tumbling or significantly damaged its protective heat shield, making it unsafe to plow through the atmosphere.

The discovery of this issue prompted a NASA investigation into Boeing’s coding and overall safety culture. NASA administrators at the time said the software issue was likely a symptom of larger problems at the company. But now, Stich said, “Boeing has an excellent safety culture.”

As a result of NASA’s investigations, Boeing fixed both issues and changed some of the spaceship’s communications software.

“There’s always a little bit of that trepidation in you,” Stich said. “This is spaceflight. The Atlas is a great vehicle. Starliner is a great vehicle. But we know how hard it is, and it’s a test flight as well. And I fully expect we’ll learn something on this test flight.”

Why NASA needs Boeing

Assuming Starliner can make it to the ISS and back without major issues, its next step will be to do it again with astronauts onboard – a crewed test flight. If everything goes smoothly, that flight could launch by the end of this year, Stich said.

boeing starliner space capsule lowered on cables to rocket
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is stacked atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 17, 2021.

NASA is relying on both Boeing and SpaceX to replace the government-developed Space Shuttle, which stopped flying in 2011.

After the Space Shuttles were retired, NASA relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed the agency’s tests, flying its first astronauts to the ISS last year. SpaceX has flown two full crews since then. NASA hopes to add Starliner to its fleet soon so that the agency is no longer reliant on just one launch system.

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Watch China launch 3 taikonauts to its new space station on Wednesday night – the country’s first human spaceflight in 5 years

chinese taikonauts Nie Haisheng Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo stand at microphones during a press conference
Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo speak at a press conference at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province, China, June 16, 2021.

China started launching parts of its new space station into orbit just two months ago, and it’s already sending people there.

The nation plans to launch three astronauts – taikonauts, as China calls them – into Earth’s orbit at 9:22 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to state-owned broadcaster CGTN.

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo will be the first people to fly to China’s new space station. Their mission, called Shenzhou-12, will take them to the Tianhe module – the station’s first piece, which launched into space in April.

Haisheng, Boming, and Hongbo are expected to live inside the 54-foot-long Tianhe module for about three months, according to CGTN. The module houses the future station’s living quarters.

“I am convinced that with the best wishes of my counterparts in China, and the general preparation, and the rounds of training on us, we are capable of accomplishing this task,” Haisheng said during a press conference on Wednesday, which was translated into English on CGTN.

The last time China flew humans to space was in 2016, when it launched three taikonauts to a temporary space-station prototype, called Tiangong-2. They stayed there for a month. In 2019, the test station fell back towards Earth and burned up in the atmosphere, as planned.

Watch 3 taikonauts launch to China’s new space station

CGTN is broadcasting Wednesday’s launch in English, embedded below.

State-controlled broadcaster CCTV is also airing the launch live with commentary in Mandarin.

9 more launches to build a new space station

Tianhe is the core module of the new Chinese Space Station (CSS). The completed orbiting laboratory is set to weigh 66 tons and accommodate three astronauts at a time. That’s significantly smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs about 450 tons and is roughly the length of a football field. However, the ISS is aging and may be out of commission by the 2030s.

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket edited thumb
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, China, April 29, 2021.

Ultimately, China plans to send taikonauts to the CSS for six-month stints, much like missions to the ISS. China expects to accept other countries’ astronauts on the CSS as well. Dmitry Rogozin, director of Roscosmos, told reporters on Wednesday that Russia plans to send its own cosmonauts there.

For now, these first three taikonauts are set to test out the Tianhe module’s life-support capabilities – its oxygen generation, its ability to filter out the carbon dioxide they exhale, its protections against the radiation of space, and the way it circulates fluids. They will also test communications between the space station and mission controllers on the ground.

The taikonauts are even expected to conduct a few hours-long spacewalks to test China’s newest spacesuits.

tianhe core module chinese space station
Visitors walk near a model of the Tianhe core module at an exhibition at China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing, April 24, 2021.

If all of that goes well, China plans to launch eight more missions to complete the CSS by the end of 2022. That includes launching two more modules, three more cargo shipments, and three more astronaut crews. The nation has already launched one module and one cargo shipment. All in all, that totals to 11 planned launches.

However, after the Tianhe module launched, the body of the Long March 5b rocket that carried it fell into an uncontrolled orbit around Earth. Usually, rocket bodies are programmed to fall into the ocean, but the Long March 5b booster could have landed anywhere across a vast swath of the planet – including much of the inhabited world.

Fortunately, the rocket body still landed in the ocean. But the incident sparked international outcry and criticism from rocket experts. It’s unclear whether China will alter its rocket design for the next two module launches. The astronaut and cargo missions, however, will use different rockets that China has previously launched without incident.

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A piece of space debris punched a tiny hole in the International Space Station, damaging a robotic arm

ISS damage thumb
Photos show damage to a robotic arm on the International Space Station, May 28, 2021.

A piece of space debris has punched a hole in one of the International Space Station’s robotic arms.

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced on Friday that they found a 0.2-inch (5-millimeter) puncture during a routine inspection of Canadarm2, Canada’s autonomous arm, on May 12.

The arm is used to transport spacewalking astronauts outside the station and deploy science experiments in orbit. It appears to be working properly despite the hole, according to the Canadian Space Agency.

It’s unknown what the piece of space junk responsible for the hole looked like, or where it came from.

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A photograph showing a chip in the glass aboard the International Space Station, 2016.

This isn’t the first time the ISS – a floating laboratory that orbits more than 220 miles above our heads – has taken a hit. Five years ago, an object struck one of the windows on the ISS’s dome, gouging a 0.3-inch-wide chip in the glass. The culprit may have been a small metal fragment no bigger than the width of an eyelash.

In total, nearly 130 million pieces of debris crowd Earth’s orbit – including leftover rocket parts, pieces of dead satellites, even tiny meteorites. In total, this debris weighs more than 10,000 tons, and more gets added every year. The chunks zip around the planet at more than 17,500 mph, roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet.

NASA and other space agencies keep tabs on more than 23,000 known pieces of space debris that could threaten the space station – pretty much anything larger than a softball. If there’s more than a 1-in-100,000 chance of a collision, NASA will maneuver the ISS out of harm’s way, since a collision could endanger the lives of the astronauts on board.

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With New Zealand in the background, two astronauts complete a spacewalk on the International Space Station in December 2006.

Last year, the agency had to move the station away from space debris three times.

But plenty of space debris is too tiny to track, and even pebbles, dust particles, or flecks of paint that slough off of other satellites can damage the ISS.

A space-junk problem

Among the biggest pieces of space junk in n low-Earth orbit are 2,900 dead satellites that float uncontrolled. Nobody can maneuver them.

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An artist’s illustration of space junk orbiting Earth.

The worst-case scenario is a collision between one of these large objects and the ISS or a crewed spaceship. But even if two dead, uninhabited satellites hit each other, that’s also a problem because any crash will produce new clouds of smaller bits of debris.

As Earth’s orbit gets more congested, the likelihood of this type of dangerous collision increases.

Last year, a defunct Soviet satellite and an old Chinese rocket body passed alarmingly close, and two dead satellites almost crossed paths as well.

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The International Space Station as seen by astronauts from NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour on February 19, 2010.

In an extreme scenario, a chain of collisions in space could spiral out of control, with the debris from one crash causing more collisions, which would create more debris. This could and wind up blanketing Earth in a practically impassable field of debris – a possibility known as the Kessler syndrome. According to Donald J. Kessler, the NASA astrophysicist who suggested the idea in 1978, it could take hundreds or even thousands of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.

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SpaceX has safely landed 4 astronauts in the ocean for NASA, completing the US’s longest human spaceflight

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NASA’s Crew-1 mission crew members in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft (left to right): NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins, as well as JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

SpaceX just returned its first full astronaut crew to Earth, completing the longest human spaceflight any US vehicle has ever flown.

The astronauts of the Crew-2 mission – Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins of NASA, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – felt the pull of Earth’s gravity for the first time in six months as their Crew Dragon spaceship tore through the atmosphere early Sunday. The spaceship, which they’ve named Resilience, protected them as its speed superheated the air around it to a 3,500-degree-Fahrenheit plasma.

A few miles above the ocean, four parachutes ballooned from the gumdrop-shaped capsule, jerking it into a slower fall. They gently lowered Resilience to a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico at 2:57 a.m. ET. The waves were calm and the weather was clear.

This was NASA’s first nighttime splashdown since 1968. Thermal cameras on a nearby recovery ship and a NASA plane captured video, below, of the spaceship and its parachutes falling into the ocean.

“On behalf of NASA and the SpaceX teams, we welcome you back to planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX. For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you have earned 68 million miles on this voyage,” a mission controller quipped to the Crew-1 astronauts as they splashed down.

“We’ll take those miles. Are they transferable?” Hopkins responded.

The astronauts’ return to Earth concludes SpaceX’s first routine crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). That’s where Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi have been living and working since they launched in November.

SpaceX first proved it could launch and land humans last year when it rocketed NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS for a two-month test flight. Now it has shown that it can carry out full-length crew rotations.

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There were 11 humans aboard the International Space Station last week.

NASA has contracted five more round-trip flights from SpaceX. The next one, Crew-2, already delivered four more astronauts to the ISS last weekend. Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi greeted their Dragon-flying colleagues with smiles and hugs. The football-field-sized orbiting laboratory was crowded with 11 people during the week that the two missions overlapped.

But on Saturday evening, the Crew-1 astronauts said goodbye and climbed back into the Crew Dragon Resilience.

The capsule undocked from its ISS port and fell into orbit around Earth, slowly lining up with a path to its splashdown site over the next 6.5 hours.

“This marks many important milestones, but it really is important for getting a regular cadence of crew to the station and back,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said after the Crew-2 launch.

“What we do on ISS is important not only for the research and technology development that we do for here on Earth but also to prepare for what we’re going to do in the future,” he added. “Our ultimate goal is sending astronauts to Mars.”

Having fun and making history 250 miles above Earth

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Left to right: Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover gather around a laptop computer to join a video conference on February 7, 2021.

Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi conducted hundreds of science and technology experiments during their time in orbit. They did a few spacewalks. They also relocated the Crew Dragon from one ISS docking port to another – a first for the spacecraft.

The crew celebrated Glover’s 45th birthday on Friday, their last full day on the ISS. The party featured cake, musical instruments, and balloons.

“Gratitude, wonder, connection. I’m full of and motivated by these feelings on my birthday, as my first mission to space comes to an end,” Glover, who is the mission pilot, tweeted. “This orbiting laboratory is a true testament to what we can accomplish when we work together as a team. Crew-1 is ready for our ride home!”

Glover was a rookie at the beginning of this mission, but Noguchi is a spaceflight veteran. He’s spent more than a year of his life in space and has flown on three different spacecraft. He said after the launch that Crew Dragon was the best.

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Soichi Noguchi poses with his SpaceX Crew Dragon spacesuit inside the International Space Station.

Hopkins, the mission commander, has had to sleep inside the spaceship for the last five months since the ISS didn’t have enough beds. That gave him the only room with a window 250 miles above Earth. The views were “absolutely stunning,” he told reporters last week.

As their departure date approached, the astronauts wondered what the Crew Dragon had in store for them.

“We don’t know quite what to expect landing on the water under parachutes like this,” Walker said. “And it’s just exciting that we get to go home and see our friends and family.”

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The Crew Dragon Endeavour parachutes into the Gulf of Mexico with Demo-2 astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley onboard, August 2, 2020.

Their return trip was originally scheduled for Wednesday, then for Saturday morning, but NASA rescheduled twice after forecasts predicted high winds in the splashdown zones.

Akihiko Hoshide, a JAXA astronaut on Crew-2, has taken over the role of ISS commander. He spoke to the Crew-1 astronauts over the radio as their spaceship backed away from the station: “Resilence departed. Have a safe trip back home and a soft landing.”

“Thanks for your hospitality,” Hopkins responded. “Sorry, we stayed a little bit long. And we’ll see you back on Earth.”

‘A new era of space exploration’

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Elon Musk celebrates after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft launch their first astronauts on the Demo-2 mission, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 30, 2020.

NASA shares its Mars ambitions with Elon Musk, the founder, CEO, and chief engineer of SpaceX. So far, SpaceX seems to be the agency’s first-choice commercial partner in expanding human spaceflight.

NASA recently chose the company’s Starship mega-spaceship to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. However, work has been temporarily halted after competing firms Dynetics and Blue Origin filed complaints.

“The future’s looking good,” Musk said in a press conference after the Crew-2 launch. “I think we’re at the dawn of a new era of space exploration.”

That era begins in low-Earth orbit, with the six Crew Dragon missions NASA has purchased. So far, this is the only commercial spaceship ever to fly humans – and it’s done so for three crews.

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The Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station with the Crew-2 astronauts on board, April 24, 2021.

Those missions restored NASA’s ability to launch astronauts from the US for the first time since the last Space Shuttle flew in 2011. The Crew Dragon also gives other space agencies, like JAXA, an alternative to the Russian Soyuz rockets that have dominated human spaceflight for the last decade.

This was what NASA wanted from its Commercial Crew Program, which funded SpaceX to build Crew Dragon and prepare its Falcon 9 rockets for crewed launches. NASA did the same for Boeing’s Starliner spaceship, but that vehicle has to re-do an uncrewed mission to the ISS before it can fly humans.

To the moon and Mars

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Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

Through the partnerships fostered in the Commercial Crew Program – and using its own mega-rocket, the Space Launch System – NASA aims to put boots on the lunar surface in 2024. Musk has said he thinks this timeline is “doable,” though NASA’s Office of the Inspector General recently determined it is “highly unlikely.”

Whenever it happens, that mission would kick NASA’s Artemis program into full gear. The eventual goal is to establish a permanent human presence on the moon – picture ISS-like orbiting laboratories and research stations on the lunar surface. NASA plans to send human missions to Mars from there.

Musk has his own plans, including building SpaceX’s planned Starship-Super Heavy launch system and using it to build a self-sustaining settlement on Mars. For now, Starship prototypes are still trying to fly and land without exploding.

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A snapshot from a SpaceX livestream of a Starship prototype flying up to 6 miles above Texas.

SpaceX also plans to start launching private spaceflight missions for paying customers. The first, set to launch this year, is called Inspiration4. For that flight, billionaire Jared Isaacman purchased four seats on Crew Dragon Resilience – the same capsule that just splashed down in the ocean. He and three other civilians plan to take a three-day joy ride around Earth.

“I think it’s a good thing for human spaceflight to see more and more people getting up into orbit around Earth. It’s just an amazing experience,” Mike Hopkins told reporters in a call from the ISS last week when asked how he felt about civilians flying in the spaceship he’s been commanding.

“As we look to kind of transition low-Earth orbit to the commercial industry, this is a big step along that way. And then NASA can continue to focus on exploration and getting back to the moon and on to Mars.”

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Watch live: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship is bringing 4 astronauts back to Earth, ending NASA’s longest human spaceflight

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Flying aboard SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission for NASA are astronauts (from left) Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover.

A gumdrop-shaped fireball is set to plummet through the dark Florida skies overnight.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, carrying four astronauts for NASA, is preparing to plow through the atmosphere at 25 times the speed of sound, deploy four parachutes as it approaches the coast of Florida, and then glide to a gentle splashdown in the ocean at about 2:57 a.m. ET on Sunday.

The return journey has already begun. The spaceship, named Resilience, has backed away from the International Space Station (ISS), carrying Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins of NASA, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Resilience carried these astronauts to the ISS in November. They have been living and working there ever since.

Their mission, called Crew-1, officially restored NASA’s ability to launch people into space on a US spacecraft for the first time since the Space Shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Six-month spaceflights have been routine for NASA astronauts launching on Russian Soyuz spaceships, but until now, the US had never flown such long-term missions on its own.

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There were 11 humans aboard the International Space Station last week.

Crew-1 is also SpaceX’s first routine astronaut flight for NASA. The agency has already purchased five more Crew Dragon missions. The second one, Crew-2, launched four more astronauts toward the ISS on April 23; they reached the station the following morning.

Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi greeted the new arrivals, but the ISS was getting crowded. So on Saturday evening, the Crew-1 team climbed back aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience for the journey home.

Watch live as Crew-1 returns to Earth

NASA is broadcasting the nearly seven-hour journey – including the fiery plunge to Earth and the splashdown at the end – via the livestream below, which began at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Walker, Glover, Hopkins, and Noguchi boarded the Resilience capsule and closed its hatch behind them at 6:20 p.m. ET on Saturday. After about two hours of checkouts, the hooks keeping Resilience attached to the space station retracted at 8:35 p.m. ET, undocking the spaceship from the ISS. The vehicle then fired its thrusters to back away.

The Crew-1 return trip was originally scheduled for Wednesday, then for Saturday morning, but NASA delayed it twice after forecasts predicted high winds in the splashdown zones.

SpaceX has flown humans back to Earth from the ISS once before – on a crewed test flight called Demo-2. In May, that mission rocketed NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. They stayed on the ISS for two months before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.

The entire descent and landing process is automated, but Hurley advised the Crew-1 astronauts to make sure they’re “staying ahead of the capsule,” according to Hopkins, the mission commander.

“Preparing for that landing is just going over our procedures and making sure when we get into that sequence of events, that we’re ready to go, and we’re following right along with all of the automation as it takes us to, hopefully, a safe landing,” Hopkins told reporters in a call from the ISS on Monday.

If all goes well, Resilience is expected to spend the next few hours orbiting Earth and maneuvering into position. At 10:58 p.m. ET, the capsule should jettison its trunk – a lower section outfitted with fuel tanks, solar panels, and other hardware – which it will no longer need.

From there, the Crew-1 astronauts could be in for a bumpy ride.

“The landing was – I would say it was more than what Doug and I expected,” Behnken told reporters after he returned to Earth aboard the spaceship. “I personally was surprised at just how quickly events all transpired.”

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NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft on August 2, 2020.

“It felt like we were inside of an animal,” he added.

Behnken also said that pivotal moments of the landing process – such as when the capsule separated from its trunk and when the parachutes deployed – felt “very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat.”

What to expect as the astronauts plummet to Earth

As the Resilience spacecraft approaches Earth, it is expected to fire its thrusters continuously, pushing itself further into the atmosphere.

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An animation of Crew Dragon plowing through the atmosphere.

Soon, the spaceship should be plummeting through the atmosphere, superheating the material around it to a blistering 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point in his flight, Behnken said, he could feel the capsule heating up, and the force of Earth’s gravity pulling on him for the first time in two months. It felt like being in a centrifuge, he added.

The Crew Dragon’s heat shield – a collection of heat-resistant tiles that line the spaceship’s underbelly – must deflect that superheated material to protect the astronauts inside. After the Demo-2 landing, NASA and SpaceX found that one of those tiles had worn away more than expected. So SpaceX reinforced the heat shield with stronger materials.

Once it’s about 18,000 feet above the ocean, Resilience should deploy four parachutes – which brings a “pretty significant jolt,” Behnken said.

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The Crew Dragon Endeavour lands in the Gulf of Mexico, returning astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth on August 2, 2020.

From there, Resilience should glide to a gentle splashdown in the ocean at 2:57 a.m. ET on Sunday. A recovery crew is expected to retrieve the charred capsule and carry the astronauts to shore.

During Behnken and Hurley’s return to Earth, a crowd of onlooking boats got dangerously close to the spaceship after it splashed down. To prevent that from happening again, SpaceX, NASA, and the Coast Guard plan to secure a 10-mile no-boat perimeter around the Crew-1 splashdown site.

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The SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship lifts the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour out of the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, on August 2, 2020.

“Landings are always fairly dynamic, particularly with the capsules like this, particularly when the chutes are opening. So that’s always a little bit exciting,” Hopkins said.

When asked what he’d like to eat upon returning from the ISS, he replied, “If I have an appetite, that’s going to be a bonus.”

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on April 26, 2021.

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