Nearly two and a half years after its first, unplanned launch, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, was successfully launched into space this afternoon, reaching the correct orbit it needed to reach the International Space Station. Tomorrow evening. The successful launch marks the beginning of a critical test flight for Starliner that will take off over the next week in space, a flight that will help prove whether the capsule can one day carry humans into space.
Starliner is a special spacecraft developed by Boeing in partnership with NASA, primarily to help transport agency 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 helped fund to bring space transportation from government to commercial companies. But before NASA astronauts can board the Starliner, the space agency wants Boeing to prove that the capsule is capable of performing all the tasks of a normal spaceflight mission without a crew on board.
That’s what today’s trip was designed to do, but It was a bumpy road to get to this point. In fact, this task is a re. Boeing attempted the same uncrewed Starliner flight in December of 2019, but that mission – called OFT – suffered from a series of software glitches. The capsule never reached the International Space Station, and Boeing had to bring the Starliner home early, failing to prove it could dock with the International Space Station. Boeing agreed to return the flight to NASA and came close to launching it again last summer. But just hours before takeoff, Boeing grounded the flight after discovering some fuel valves were not working properly. The company had to return the Starliner to the factory to address the problem.
Now, the Starliner is finally in orbit where it’s meant to be. “We have a good burn in orbit,” said Josh Barrett, Boeing’s communications representative, during the launch livestream. “Starliner in stable circular orbit en route to the International Space Station.”
But he still has a lot to prove in the future. Next, it will need to show that it can automatically dock with the International Space Station, using its onboard sensors to orient itself into an open docking port. After that you will need to undock and go home, landing safely on the ground. So, while Starliner has seen success today, the business is just getting started.
However, Boeing has shown that it has seemingly overcome the problems it encountered in 2019. Perhaps today’s biggest agonizing moment occurred about 31 minutes after launch, when the Starliner burned an array of onboard thrusters to put itself into its final orbit. The Starliner is launched into space atop an Atlas V rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance, but its work doesn’t end when it separates from the booster rocket. Four thrusts on the Starliner must burn for less than a minute to get the capsule into the correct orbit. During the 2019 flight, a software glitch caused Starliner to believe it was the wrong time of day, causing the capsule to incorrectly launch for its impulses. As a result, the Starliner spent a lot of fuel and didn’t get into the correct orbit it needed to get to the International Space Station.
Today, the launch of the rocket seemed to be going well at first, and the Starliner was in its intended orbit. However, after the flight, Boeing revealed that two of the thrusters had already failed during orbital insertion, and they were shut down earlier than intended. The first shut down after one second, and the flight control system was redirected to the second nearby thruster. However, that also shut down early after just 25 seconds, and the system had to reroute to the third thruster, which was working as intended. In general, this did not affect the ability of the Starliner to reach its planned orbit. Boeing is studying the issue, though the company and NASA claim that failed thrusters should not affect the Starliner’s ability to perform the rest of its mission.
“We’re going to go look at the data, and try to understand what happened,” Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program program manager, said during a post-flight news conference. “And from an iteration perspective, can we get those impulses back?” Starliner will again use its thrusters to perform burns to adjust its orbit as it approaches the station and also to de-orbit the capsule as it returns to Earth. Ten of the 12 thrusters that Starliner needs are working, according to Boeing.
Boeing didn’t seem to have any issues with the fuel valves this time around, which caused the company to rub its last launch in August of 2021. Prior to this flight, Boeing replaced the valves and added a sealant to prevent moisture from getting into them and causing this to happen. . Problems.
Now, Starliner will spend roughly the next day in space, gradually raising its orbit, before attempting to dock with the International Space Station at 7:10 p.m. ET on Friday. Crew members aboard the space station will monitor the approach of the capsule. If that works, they’ll open the hatch to Starliner on Saturday, to retrieve some of the merchandise packed inside. Also inside the Starliner is a mannequin called Rosie the Rocketeer, as well as sensors that help collect data to determine what the flight will be like for passengers in the future. Four to five days after docking at the International Space Station, the Starliner will unload its berth and return home, landing somewhere on Earth at one of five potential locations — including White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Depending on how that mission goes, it will be up to NASA and Boeing to prepare the Starliner for human spaceflight, and conduct a test mission with people on board called the CFT, for the Crewed Flight Test. While NASA has selected a group of astronauts who can fly on the mission, the agency said it will finish the first crew aboard the Starliner by late summer.
It is likely that there is still a long way to go before that happens. Last week, NASA’s Safety Committee noted that the certification process for the parachutes needed to land the Starliner is lagging behind. In addition, Boeing recently indicated that the company will likely redesign the valves that caused problems for the company last year. If that happens, NASA may take longer to certify the Starliner to transport people. And the security panel warned against rushing to do so.
“The committee is pleased that, from all indications, there is no sense of the need to rush into terrorist financing,” Dave West, a member of the NASA Space Safety Advisory Committee, said during the meeting. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us is that the program will move to terrorist financing when and only when they are ready.”
The Committee also noted that the best way to prepare for the fight against terrorist financing is for this current trip to go well. Next week will decide if that will happen.
Update May 19, 9:40 PM ET: This story has been updated to include information from a post-launch press conference detailing the in-flight thruster issue.
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