Today is the day the Boeing Starliner spacecraft takes off into the sky. Unless it is so.
It’s been nearly 29 months since the company’s first attempt to demonstrate that the Starliner can safely launch into orbit, fly to the International Space Station and dock, then return to Earth in the New Mexico desert under three parachutes. During that December 2019 test flight, of course, there were myriad programming problems, and Starliner ended up lacking the fuel to rendezvous with the space station.
As part of its fixed-price contract with NASA — the space agency is paying about $5.1 billion to Boeing to develop a crew transport system to the space station — the company agreed to return the test flight. Boeing thought it was ready for that repeat flight last August, but hours before launch, more than a dozen valves malfunctioned in the Starliner’s propulsion system. The attempt was canceled, so Boeing was unable to test its modified software code.
Since August, Boeing and NASA have worked to understand the valve problem, which turned out to be caused by ambient moisture causing corrosion inside the valves. Then the engineers carried out the repairs. Because of this additional delay, Boeing incurred a loss of $600 million to fly on this second test mission, known as the Orbital Flight Test-2.
Today’s launch is scheduled for 6:54 PM ET (22:54 UTC) atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. launch coverage It will start at 6 p.m. ET on NASA TV. The weather looks favorable overall, with a 70 percent chance of “shooting” conditions during the instantaneous launch window.
During launch, an Atlas V rocket with two rigid rocket propellers will deliver the Starliner to an altitude of 181 km, at which point the spacecraft will boost itself into an orbital trajectory. This will be the 93rd overall launch of the missile, which was built by the United Launch Alliance and has an excellent reliability record.
The stakes are high for both Boeing and NASA. There is a good chance that Boeing has now lost money developing Starliner over the past decade. Recently, the former NASA Deputy Administrator Laurie Garver said She believed that the company would probably not take over the program if given the opportunity to do so again. The sooner Boeing makes the Starliner operational, the better financially it can serve NASA as well as attract additional customers from the private market.
In the meantime, the space agency would very much like to have a second way to reach the space station. It’s confident in the ability of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — which has been paid by NASA $3.1 billion and has been safely flying astronauts since the mid-2020s — but with uncertainty in Russia, the space agency can no longer count on access to the Soyuz craft.
Butch Willmore, one of the NASA astronauts who will fly an early Starliner mission, said during a press conference Wednesday that Boeing and the space agency were confident ahead of Thursday’s launch attempt. “This spacecraft is ready,” he said. “The teams are ready. Boeing is ready. ULA is ready. The mission personnel who will control the spacecraft in space are ready. We are excited.”
If all goes well with the launch, the unmanned Starliner spacecraft will dock with the space station on Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET (23:10 UTC). Doing so will enable Starliner and its deeply revised software to pass a major NASA test. After several days attached to the station, the Starliner is scheduled to return to Earth next week. Success in the overall mission is likely to prepare a manned launch test for the Starliner during the first half of 2023.
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