Nearly two and a half years after its first launch did not go as planned, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, successfully launched into space this afternoon, reaching the good orbit it needed to reach the rendezvous with the International Space Station tomorrow night. The successful launch marks the start of a crucial test flight for Starliner that will take place over the next week in space, a flight that will help demonstrate whether the capsule is capable of carrying humans into space a day.
Starliner is a private spacecraft that Boeing developed in partnership with NASA, primarily to help ferry the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. The capsule is one of two vehicles, along with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, that NASA has helped fund to shift space transportation from government to commercial enterprises. But before NASA astronauts can board Starliner, the space agency wants Boeing to demonstrate that the capsule can perform all the tasks of a normal spaceflight mission without a crew on board.
That’s what today’s flight is designed for, but the road was bumpy to get to this point. In fact, this mission is to be redone. Boeing attempted the same uncrewed Starliner flight in December 2019, but that mission – called OFT – suffered a series of software glitches. The capsule never made it to the International Space Station, and Boeing had to fly Starliner home early because it couldn’t demonstrate its ability to dock with the ISS. Boeing agreed to redo the flight for NASA and nearly relaunched it last summer. But just hours before takeoff, Boeing aborted the flight after discovering malfunctioning thruster valves. The company had to take Starliner back to the factory to fix the problem.
Now Starliner is finally in orbit where it’s supposed to be. “We have a good orbital insert burn,” Josh Barrett, a Boeing communications representative, said during the launch live stream. “Starliner is in a stable circular orbit en route to the International Space Station.”
But he still has a lot to prove. Next, it will have to show that it can automatically dock with the International Space Station, using its onboard sensors to guide itself to an open docking port. Then it will have to undock and return home, landing safely on Earth. So while Starliner has seen success today, the work has only just begun.
Still, Boeing has shown it has seemingly overcome the issues it faced in 2019. Perhaps the biggest nail-biting moment happened today about 31 minutes after launch, when Starliner burned a suite of onboard boosters to get into its final orbit. Starliner launches into space atop an Atlas V rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance, but its job isn’t done when it separates from the booster. Four thrusters on Starliner must burn for less than a minute to place the capsule in the correct orbit. During the 2019 flight, a software glitch tricked Starliner into thinking it was the wrong time of day, causing the capsule to fire its thrusters incorrectly. As a result, Starliner expended too much propellant and did not enter the correct orbit it needed to reach the ISS.
But today, the booster shot appears to be going well, and Starliner is in its scheduled orbit. Additionally, Boeing did not appear to have any issues with its propellant valves, causing the company to scrub its last launch in August 2021. Prior to this flight, Boeing replaced the valves and added sealant to prevent moisture to enter it and cause problems.
Now, Starliner will spend roughly the next day in space, gradually increasing its orbit, before attempting to dock with the ISS at 7:10 p.m. ET on Friday. Crew members aboard the space station will monitor the approach of the capsule. If successful, they will open the hatch to Starliner on Saturday, picking up cargo that is packed inside. Also inside Starliner is a dummy called Rosie the Rocketeer, as well as sensors to help collect data to determine how the flight will go for future passengers. After four to five days docked with the ISS, Starliner will undocking and then return home, landing somewhere on Earth at one of five possible sites, including White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Depending on how this mission unfolds, it will then be up to NASA and Boeing to prepare Starliner for manned space flight, by carrying out a test mission with people on board called CFT, for Crewed Flight Test. While NASA has selected a group of astronauts who could fly on the mission, the agency said it will finalize the first crew on Starliner by the end of the summer.
And there’s probably still a long way to go before that happens. Last week, a NASA safety committee noted that the certification process for the parachutes needed to land Starliner was lagging. Additionally, Boeing recently noted that the company may change the design of the valves that caused it problems last year. If that happens, it could take NASA longer to certify Starliner for carrying people. And the safety sign warned against rushing to do so.
“The panel is thrilled that, by all indications, there is no sense of having to rush to CFT,” said Dave West, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Security Advisory Group, during the presentation. meeting. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us is that the program will move to CFT when, and only when, they are ready.”
The panel also noted that the best way to prepare for the CFT was for this current flight to go well. Next week will decide if that happens.
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