Boeing Carries NASA Astronauts to Orbit in ‘Milestone’ Starliner Flight

After two trips to the launchpad that did not end up going to space, two NASA astronauts finally headed to orbit on Wednesday in a vehicle built by Boeing, the aerospace giant.

The first trip of Starliner, a 15-foot-wide capsule, with astronauts on board comes four years and six days after SpaceX, the other company that NASA has hired to provide astronaut rides, launched its first mission with astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing is now set to also provide that service, but a series of costly delays repeatedly kept astronauts from flying the company’s vehicle earlier. SpaceX, once seen as an upstart, has flown 13 crews to orbit in total.

The long awaited flight of the Boeing vehicle is the latest step in NASA’s efforts to rely more heavily on the private sector for its human spaceflight program.

“This is another milestone in this extraordinary history of NASA,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator said during a news conference after the launch.

When Starliner arrives at the space station on Thursday, it will join a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule already docked there. NASA officials have steadfastly said that they want to have two different American spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to orbit.

“We always like to have a backup,” Mr. Nelson said. “That makes it safer for our astronauts.”

If the vehicle’s mission goes well, it will also provide some good news for Boeing, whose aviation safety record is under heavy scrutiny after a side panel of an Alaska Airlines jet blew out during a flight earlier this year.

The space division of Boeing has also been under pressure, with work on Starliner stretching years longer than either the company or NASA had expected. Technical pitfalls included inadequate software testing, corroded propellant valves, flammable tape and a key component in the parachute system that turned out to be weaker than expected.

A few minutes before launch, Butch Wilmore, the mission commander, said: “Let’s put some fire in this rocket. Let’s push it to the heavens.”

Suni Williams, the other member of the crew who serves as pilot, added, “Let’s go, Calypso, take us to space and back,” referring to the name she had given the capsule, after the ship used by the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

At 10:52 a.m. Eastern time, the engines of an Atlas V rocket ignited, lifting the Starliner spacecraft on an arcing path to space. The launch and early parts of today’s flight in orbit provided a welcome relief, unfolding smoothly.

“I’m smiling, believe me,” said Mark Nappi, the Boeing official in charge of Starliner. “But it’s a little bit of controlled emotion, because there’s a lot of phases to this mission. And we just completed the first one.”

A minor glitch involved a system that provides cooling during the ride to orbit. The cooling system, known as a sublimator, used a bit more water than expected. Once in orbit, the spacecraft switched to a different cooling system, a radiator, and while engineers will investigate what happened, it will not affect the mission.

Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams are scheduled to dock with the station at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday.

Along the way, Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams will take time to test out manually flying the spacecraft, something that is usually not necessary except in emergencies. The life support systems will also be fully checked.

The astronauts will then spend at least eight days at the space station before returning to Earth. The mission has 87 test objectives altogether. “There’s a lot of, I’ll call them ergonomic types of flight test objectives,” Mr. Nappi said. “How do the seats fit? How do the suits work? How do the displays look?”

After the mission, NASA and Boeing will review data from the flight to complete certification of Starliner. The spacecraft would then be ready to begin once-a-year operational flights to ferry NASA crews for six-month stays at the space station. Each Starliner capsule — Boeing has two for orbital missions — is designed for 10 missions.

The path to Wednesday’s flight was years in the making.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, the rocket company run by Elon Musk, to build replacements for the space shuttles that had taken astronauts to and from the space station before being retired in 2011. NASA had started paying Russia to fly its astronauts to orbit on Soyuz rockets.

Congress was skeptical, repeatedly cutting money that NASA had sought for the commercial crew program. At the time, SpaceX was ascendant, but was not the dominant force it has become today in the rocket launch industry. The selection of Boeing helped reassure lawmakers that NASA was making a sound investment.

NASA originally said Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could be ready by 2017.

Both companies took longer than planned, a not uncommon occurrence in the aerospace industry.

But in December 2019, Boeing appeared to be in the homestretch. Then a test of Starliner with no astronauts on board went awry because of software problems, and a planned docking was called off. NASA labeled the flight a “high-visibility close call,” because the software flaws could have led to the destruction of the spacecraft if they had not been fixed before re-entry.

Boeing and NASA decided to repeat the uncrewed test, but that test was delayed by corroded propellant valves and Starliner did not launch again until May 2022.

More issues then emerged. Protective tape that was wrapped around wiring insulation turned out to be flammable, and a key but weak component in the parachute system could have broken if Starliner’s three parachutes did not deploy properly.

Those delays cost Boeing $1.4 billion, and while Starliner remained on the ground, SpaceX launched nine crewed missions for NASA (one, Crew-8, is currently docked at the station) and four additional commercial missions with non-NASA passengers aboard.

This year’s round of launch attempts started on May 6. That flight was scuttled by a misbehaving valve on the Atlas V rocket. A small helium leak was then discovered in the Starliner’s propulsion system, leading to several weeks of investigation.

A second launch attempt on Saturday ticked down to 3 minutes and 50 seconds before liftoff, until the computers that autonomously handle the final parts of the launch sequence encountered a problem and halted the countdown.

Over the next few days, technicians replaced a faulty power component, setting the stage for the successful launch on Wednesday.

Niraj Chokshi contributed reporting.

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