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Boeing’s long-awaited Starliner is ready for its first test flight to the International Space Station

Boeing’s long-awaited Starliner is ready for its first test flight to the International Space Station

After years behind schedule and more than $1 billion under budget, Boeing’s Starliner capsule is finally preparing for its first pilot launch on Monday, an important test flight that will carry two veteran astronauts to the International Space Station, thus demonstrating an alternative to SpaceX’s operational spacecraft. Indeed the Dragon Crew.

While SpaceX has launched 50 astronauts, astronauts and civilians into orbit on 13 Crew Dragon test flights since May 2020, Boeing has encountered several technical issues that required extensive rework — and an additional uncrewed test flight — to resolve.

But mission managers say all known issues have been corrected, numerous upgrades and other improvements have been implemented and the spacecraft has been thoroughly tested to verify that it is finally ready to safely transport astronauts to and from the space station.

Boeing’s Starliner astronaut crew ship floats atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station awaiting launch on the spacecraft’s third test flight, the first with astronauts on board.

United Launch Alliance

No one is more excited about launch than the Starliner crew, both of whom are active-duty NASA astronauts.

“I have complete confidence in the management that makes the decisions that get to the operations team, and complete confidence in the NASA side and the Boeing side,” mission commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore said. “There were some problems in the past. This is the past. This is not now.”

Co-pilot Sunita Williams agreed, adding, “I feel like we’ve learned a lot of lessons, and they’ve been integrated. … We’re not going to say we’re prepared if we’re not prepared.”

The long-awaited Starliner launch is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 10:34 p.m. EDT on Monday, roughly at the moment Earth’s rotation holds Launch Complex 41 into alignment with Space station orbit.

Wilmore and Williams are well suited to take the Starliner on its first test drive. They are both former Navy test pilots and two of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, with four spaceflights, 11 spacewalks and 500 days in orbit between them. They both flew into space aboard the space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz ferry ship.

They are now piloting a new spacecraft on its first test flight.

Astronauts Sunita Williams, left, and Barry “Butch” Wilmore plan to put the Starliner spacecraft through its paces on its way to the space station, during docking and on its way back to Earth to check its readiness to routinely transport astronaut crews to and from the outpost.


“I remember being selected for test pilot school and (wondering) if I would be the first to do something on an airplane that had never been done before,” Wilmore, a former F/A-18 pilot, Desert Storm veteran and pastor, said. He told CBS News. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be the crew of the first flight of a spacecraft. And here we are.”

Besides marking the first Starliner test flight, this will be the first astronaut launch using an Atlas rocket since Gordon Cooper’s last flight aboard Mercury more than 60 years ago.

While hundreds of Atlas rockets have been launched since then, the latest generation of Atlas 5 rockets, equipped with a Russian-made RD-180 first-stage engine, is once again “human-class,” with highly reliable components and good condition. – Advanced emergency fault detection system designed to stimulate safe escape in the event of an impending launch failure.

“We went to a few launches,” Williams said. “One was an Air Force payload. I found out the price of this payload, and I said, ‘Well, if they’re shooting it on the Atlas 5, I feel very comfortable sitting on the Atlas 5! It’s a great rocket.’

If Atlas 5 encounters an unexpected problem, the Starliner, like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, features powerful abort engines capable of blasting the ship off its booster at any point from the launch pad to orbit. The capsule will then descend to a parachute-assisted landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast of the United States.

Although Wilmore and Williams is fully automated, they can operate the abortion process manually if necessary. The spacecraft also features two autonomous systems that give pilots direct computer-assisted manual control if major guidance, navigation or computer problems arise during launch or in orbit.

Williams, left, and Wilmore work through procedures in the Starliner simulator at Johnson Space Center in Houston. While the Starliner is designed to autonomously rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station, it can also fly in fully manual mode. Willmore and Williams plan to test those controls during the ship’s first test flight.


The Starliner flight marks only the sixth time NASA has put astronauts aboard a new spacecraft for the first time. Jim Frey, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, called the Starliner crew flight test, or CFT, a “very, very important milestone.”

He added: “The lives of our crew members, Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore, are at stake.” “Let me remind everyone again, this is a new spacecraft. And I’ll also remind you that this is a test flight. … We certainly have some unknowns on this mission, and we may encounter things that we don’t expect. But our mission now is to stay vigilant and continue to look for problems.” “

While he said he was confident the Starliner was ready to fly, Frye said he didn’t want to “push too far” because the crew had yet to complete a successful mission. “But when we do, and when we certify Starliner, the United States will have two unique human space transportation functions that provide critical redundancy for access to the International Space Station,” he added.

Assuming the launch is problem-free, it will take about 15 minutes to reach its initial orbit. The flight plan calls for Wilmore and Williams to observe a mostly automated rendezvous with the space station, taking two time-outs to manually fly the spacecraft, checking the crew’s ability to adjust the course or intervene after a major malfunction.

Approaching the station from behind and below, the astronauts will join the laboratory complex early Wednesday, docking at the station’s foreport at 12:46 a.m. on May 8.

They will be welcomed aboard by Expedition 71 commander Oleg Kononenko and his Soyuz MS-25 crewmates, NASA’s Nikolai Chub and Tracy Dyson, along with NASA Crew 8 commander Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, Janet Epps, and astronaut Alexander Grebenkin.

Wilmore and Williams plan to spend a little more than a week aboard the station, transporting 750 pounds of equipment to the laboratory, decommissioning the Starliner, and making sure it can be used as a “safe haven” for visiting crews for an extended period. The current plan calls for undocking on May 15, but that could change depending on the weather at the landing site.

Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut ferry ship, which ends its mission by landing in the ocean, Boeing’s Starliner is designed to land with the help of a parachute and airbag at government sites in the western United States.


Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which lands in the ocean at the end of a mission, the Starliner is designed to land on Earth, using parachutes and two sets of airbags that inflate sequentially to cushion the shock of landing. For crew flight testing, the May 15 undocking will target a landing at White Sands Spaceport in New Mexico.

But since this is a test flight, NASA will only approve the undocking if the wind speed at the landing site reaches 6 knots or less. The maximum actual landing is 10 knots. As a result, NASA may replan a night landing, when desert winds typically subside, at a different location.

Assuming the flight goes well, NASA managers hope to certify Starliner for operational crew ferry missions starting next year, and launch Crew Dragon and Starliner each year to change the space station’s crew through the program’s retirement at the end of the decade.

The Commercial Crew Program represents a major shift in human spaceflight

In the wake of the Space Shuttle’s retirement, NASA awarded two Commercial Crew Program contracts in 2014, one to SpaceX for $2.6 billion and one to Boeing for $4.2 billion, to stimulate the development of autonomous spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to and from space. International Space Station.

The goal was to end NASA’s post-shuttle dependence on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and resume launching American astronauts from American soil aboard American rockets and spacecraft. Equally important for NASA: two independent spacecraft for crew flights to the International Space Station in case one company’s ferry ship experiences problems that could lead to its being grounded for a long period.

The original target date for the initial CCP flights was 2017. A lack of funding in Congress and technical hurdles delayed development, including an explosion during a ground test that destroyed the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle.

But the California rocket maker was still able to launch test flights in May 2020, successfully launching two NASA astronauts on a Crew Dragon test flight to the space station.

Since then, SpaceX has launched eight operational crew rotation flights to the station, three research missions to the lab funded by Houston-based Axiom Space, and a purely commercial two-man, two-woman flight to low Earth orbit paid for by the billionaire. Pilot and businessman Jared Isaacman. In all, 50 people flew into orbit aboard Crew Dragons.

The Starliner spacecraft during final processing at Boeing’s Kennedy Space Center manufacturing facility before being installed atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

William Harwood/CBS News

It was a different story for the Boeing Starliner.

During an initial unmanned test flight in December 2019, Unexpected errors in software and communications It prevented a planned rendezvous with the space station. Boeing corrected these problems and elected to conduct a second uncrewed test flight at its own expense.

But during the second countdown, the engineers ran into problems The propulsion system valves are stuck In the Starliner service module. Ultimately, engineers attributed the problem to moisture infiltration and corrosion, which led to another long delay.

The Starliner’s second test flight in May 2022 was a success, docking at the space station as planned and returning to Earth with a precision landing. But in the wake of the flight, engineers discovered new problems: Problem with canopy harness connectors And worry about the protective tape wrapped around the wires, which could catch fire in the event of a short circuit.

Work to correct these problems has pushed the first crewed flight to this year. When all was said and done, Boeing spent more than $1 billion of its own money to pay for the additional test flight and corrective actions.

Mission critical for Boeing

The launch of the CFT comes at a critical time for Boeing in the wake of two highly publicized 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 and, more recently, The cabin door plug exploded during an Alaska Airlines flight Which raised new questions about the company’s safety culture.

For his part, Wilmore said he did not view the Starliner launch in the context of Boeing’s problem with its planes.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily about Boeing or a flight,” he said. “They’re all vitally important. This is human spaceflight. That adage you’ve heard since Apollo 13, failure is not an option? This has nothing to do specifically with Boeing or this program. These are all the things we do in human spaceflight.” .

“So, this is no more or less important than anything else we do,” he said. “This happens to be the most important thing we do right now.”

Williams acknowledged the rocky road the Starliner faced to get off the ground. “I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. It’s kind of an emotional roller coaster.”

But she added: “We knew we would get here eventually. It’s a solid spacecraft. And I don’t think I’d really want to be anywhere else right now.”

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