Boeing Starliner launches first crewed mission for NASA

After years of delays and several recent setbacks, Boeing's Starliner launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 5 at 10:52 a.m. aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. The spacecraft is now on its way to deliver two astronauts to the International Space Station. The launch makes Boeing the second private contractor (after SpaceX) to transport people for NASA, but the company's achievement has been overshadowed by ongoing airline production scandals.

About 16.5 meters high and 15 meters wide Although Starliner is attached to the aft service module, it can accommodate as many as seven astronauts. For future NASA transportation missions, however Boeing generally expects this four-man crews in addition to payloads for each of Starliner's ten scheduled missions. Today's launch included NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. In a statement issued after takeoffNASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Starliner “marks a new chapter of American exploration.”

[Related: NASA and Boeing’s Starliner delays expose the challenges of space travel.]

The June 5 launch came after a decade of mounting development problems. NASA announced its first Commercial Crew Program contracts with Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to develop new spacecraft. But despite receiving barely half of Boeing's $5.2 billion contract, SpaceX managed to launch the first-ever private transport of NASA astronauts in 2020. Boeing, meanwhile, would not complete an unmanned test flight until 2022.

The CST-100 Starliner autonomously approaches the International Space Station during the Unmanned Orbital Flight Test-2 in May 2022. Credit: NASA

Starliner's ultimate fate was uncertain in the summer of 2023, when experts estimated the beleaguered project had already been completed. cost Boeing $1.5 billion. In recent months, the company has also faced public criticism and regulatory scrutiny after alleged technical and safety issues led to high-profile emergencies aboard multiple Boeing 737 Max aircraft. Mission control postponed the launch of the spacecraft several times during the four weeks. On May 6, engineers discovered a faulty valve in Atlas V's Centaur upper stage that required replacement, while later on May 17, a small helium leak in one of the reaction control thrusters of Starlink's service module was discovered. ​​Mission control eventually determined that the gas leak did. posed no threat to the launch and moved the launch date to June 1. However, with less than 4 minutes to go before launch on Saturday, the Starliner launch was scrapped again after engineers discovered a computer glitch in the ground launch equipment.

Despite these problems, Boeing's Starliner now appears to be back on track for commercial space operations. During their journey to the ISS, astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will test the vehicle's life support and navigation systems, evaluate seats and assess the system designed to move cargo to the space station. Starliner is scheduled to dock with the ISS around 12:15 PM EST on June 6, after which the astronauts will spend approximately 10 days at the ISS before heading back to Earth. However, instead of a water landing, the spacecraft is designed to deploy parachutes and airbags for a soft landing at a land location in the southwestern US.

The next launch is tentatively scheduled for sometime early next year and will include a double astronaut crew, along with additional research equipment and mission supplies.

“Design and development have constant ups and downs, but the overall slope is always upward,” Mark Nappi, Boeing commercial crew program manager, told reporters at the first-ever Starliner show. press conference prior to the launch last month.

This story is being updated…

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