Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft may finally take its first crewed flight next week

Boeing’s Starliner was a crew capsule and the nearly $1.5 billion cost overrun is about to make its first flight with humans on board. Boeing partnered with SpaceX 10 years ago to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station (ISS), thereby ending NASA’s dependence on Russia for crewed flights. The companies were each awarded a fixed-price contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: $4.2 billion to Boeing for the CST-100 (Starliner) and $2.6 billion to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Their initial 2017 term was a bit too ambitious. SpaceX — and about after that — as Boeing struggled to get the Starliner capsule off the ground. But on May 6, it will finally have a manned flight under its belt.

Starliner is now docked at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s ULA Atlas V rocket at Launch Complex-41, which will launch it to the ISS. Liftoff is scheduled for Monday, May 6 at 10:34 PM ET. The capsule will carry two NASA astronauts: Butch Wilmore, mission commander, and Suni Williams, who will serve as pilot.

Boeing Starliner during an unmanned flight test in spaceBoeing Starliner during an unmanned flight test in space


Not only is this the first crewed flight of the Starliner, this test is only its third flight so far. The spacecraft (without anyone on board) successfully demonstrated its ability to reach, dock, and eject from the ISS during its second Orbital Flight Test in the spring of 2022. On its previous attempt, in 2019, the Starliner failed to reach the ISS due to a software problem that resulted in it burning too much fuel (one of the few problems Boeing missed after opting for it at the time). ).

After Boeing landed the NASA contract, the company faced numerous other problems in the years that left it well behind SpaceX. In 2018, a toxic fuel leak occurred during testing. Then corrosion caused valves in the propulsion system to stick, derailing Boeing’s plans for a 2021 launch. reported earlier this year. Problems with the spacecraft’s parachute deployment system last summer and the team had to remove burning tape around a mile.

Boeing has also had its fair share of problems outside of the Starliner during this time and has faced more scrutiny. — specifically the 737 Max line — after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, on top of other less serious incidents. Most recently, in January, a panel blew off a 737 Max 9 mid-flight, forcing it to make an emergency landing.

The May 6 flight is a big step toward certifying the Starliner as a crew transportation system that NASA can include in its rotation for trips to the ISS. This would give the space agency the backup it was looking for; with both Crew Dragon and Starliner running, there will always be a backup option in case something happens to one of them. Both NASA and Boeing have been adamant that the capsule has been thoroughly reviewed and is ready to support astronauts. NASA concluded its Flight Test Readiness Review of Starliner’s Crew on April 25.

“The first crewed flight of a new spacecraft is an absolutely critical milestone,” NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free said during a briefing on the completion of the investigation. “The lives of our crew members Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are in danger – we don’t take that lightly.” Emily Nelson, NASA’s chief flight officer, said the final review “is the culmination of a season of detailed reviews that thoroughly confirms that we are indeed ready for this flight.”

NASA astronauts Suni Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore (right) at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in FloridaNASA astronauts Suni Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore (right) at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida

NASA/Frank Michaux

Starliner is expected to take about 24 hours to reach the ISS after liftoff, and since this is a test flight, its crew will have a long to-do list of system and equipment checks to complete at each stage of the journey. Although the Starliner can operate autonomously, the crew will test its manual controls and make sure it is in good shape for manual override scenarios. After Starliner docks with the space station, the astronauts will spend about a week there with the current crew, Expedition 71.

They will then leave the orbiting laboratory and head home, re-testing the Starliner for re-entry and landing. Several potential landing sites have been selected in the southwestern United States, including the White Sands missile site in New Mexico.

Wilmore and Williams have been training for the Starliner’s maiden flight for years. “They know the vehicle inside and out and have been part of the test environment that developed the Starliner capability,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. All those present at last Thursday’s briefing acknowledged that they may encounter some unexpected challenges and that there is much to learn from this first crewed flight. “It’s a good reminder for all of us that the team has trained, they’ve run the wires, they’ve run the models, but there’s nothing like flying in a space environment,” Free said.

NASA and Boeing officials also expressed confidence that the spacecraft itself and the teams carrying out its trip are well prepared for the job. The He echoed those sentiments after arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “If it wasn’t ready, we wouldn’t be here,” Wilmore said in response to questions from the press. “We are ready, the spacecraft is ready and the teams are ready.”

If the Starliner cannot be launched on the 6th for any reason, it will have backup capabilities on the 7th, 10th and 11th of May. After the crew’s Flight Test is completed and the astronauts return home, NASA will take care of certifying the spacecraft. future missions that bring crews to and from the ISS. It is currently targeting 2025 for the Starliner to enter service.

“I don’t want to get too far ahead because we still have to do a successful mission,” Free said before the Starliner launch, “but when we do and we certify the Starliner, the United States will have two unique human spaceships. Transports that provide critical resources for access to the ISS.

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