Boeing is set to launch its long-awaited Starliner spacecraft — which is designed to carry NASA astronauts — on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station on Wednesday, following up on the company’s botched first attempt 18 months ago. It will be a watershed moment for Boeing and NASA, as the traditional aerospace behemoth seeks to join SpaceX in ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.
The Starliner was supposed to take off from Florida on Friday afternoon and dock with the International Space Station on Saturday. However, when Russia’s Nauka laboratory module docked at the space station on Thursday morning, the thrusters on the module began firing unexpectedly.
Though no one was in danger and ground teams regained control of the space station after about an hour, Starliner’s launch was postponed until Tuesday to allow mission control to “continue working checkouts of the newly arrived Nauka module and to ensure the station will be ready for Starliner’s arrival,” according to NASA.
However, on Tuesday morning, Boeing announced that it had discovered problems with the Starliner’s propulsion system’s valves, delaying the flight by another 24 hours.
The launch date has been pushed back to no earlier than Wednesday.
On the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 ahead of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission on Thursday, July 29, 2021, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with a Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen on the launch pad ahead of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The Starliner test launch is one of Boeing’s and NASA’s most important missions of the year. The spacecraft is expected to be Boeing’s response to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has already begun flying astronauts and marked the end of a decade-long hiatus in human spaceflight on US soil.
Both Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are designed to transport astronauts and possibly tourists to and from the International Space Station and were developed under contract with NASA, though they will be owned and operated by their respective companies.
If everything goes according to plan during Starliner’s upcoming uncrewed test mission, the fully autonomous spacecraft will spend a few days in orbit — without humans on board — before docking with the International Space Station to show that the capsule is capable of safely completing the mission. It will then return to Earth and land in the New Mexico desert via parachute.
Boeing has been working on a spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station since the early 2010s, but has run into numerous delays and technical issues.
The flight also comes at a time when investors and customers are keeping a close eye on Boeing as it deals with a slew of controversies and scandals, most notably involving its 737 Max aircraft, as well as questions about its internal safety culture.
NASA and Boeing are eager for the Starliner to successfully complete this test run so that it can resume regular operations.
Boeing’s Starliner, along with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which has already made three trips to the International Space Station with astronauts on board, is expected to usher in a new era of human spaceflight in the United States, in which private companies, rather than NASA, take the reins.
The Starliner will launch into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket, which is built by a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin and has a spotless 15-year track record of launching satellites and other cargo. The Starliner will fly with an empty cabin except for a test flight dummy named Rosie and about 475 pounds of cargo and supplies.
On Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying a Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is rolled out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 ahead of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission.
After the Starliner spacecraft separates from the Atlas V rocket and begins free-flying in space, the real test will begin. The spacecraft will have to use its onboard computers and thrusters to slowly maneuver toward the ISS, which is about 250 miles above Earth.
On Wednesday afternoon, it is expected to dock with the International Space Station.