Boeing’s second chance to do the trick is well underway as Starliner, its space taxi, was launched into orbit on Thursday.
The spacecraft was built for NASA to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But before it can do that, it has to perform a test flight without astronauts to show that all of its systems are working properly.
“Today we feel really good and have great confidence in the vehicle,” Mark Nappi, vice president and commercial crew program manager at Boeing, said at a press conference hours after the launch. launch.
Two thrusters failed during a maneuver to place Starliner in a stable orbit, but the spacecraft was able to self-adjust with its remaining thrusters, and it continued on its way. Engineers are investigating what went wrong.
Two previous attempts to undertake this preparatory journey – the first in December 2019 and the second in August 2021 – were both marred by serious technical problems. The setbacks also cost Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Boeing is catching up with SpaceX, the new space company founded by Elon Musk that has already carried five NASA crews into orbit in the past two years.
A second transport option for NASA also provides resilience in case one of the spacecraft suffers an accident.
Otherwise, NASA would once again have to rely on Russian Soyuz capsules, which were the only ride in orbit for American astronauts for nearly a decade. US-Russia collaboration on the space station became politically complicated after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year.
At 6:54 p.m. ET, the engines of an Atlas 5 rocket roared from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, lifting Starliner skyward. Thirty-two minutes later, he was safely in orbit.
Thursday’s launch was a relief for Boeing and NASA officials. The countdown and take-off went without any unpleasant surprises. The only problem occurred during the first of Starliner’s thruster shots, needed to give the spacecraft its final thrust into orbit.
At the rear of the spacecraft are four modules, each containing a cluster of three thrusters. For the orbital insertion maneuver, which lasted approximately 40 seconds, one thruster in each pod began firing.
In one of the pods, the thruster started firing, then stopped after a second, Mr Nappi said. The Starliner’s flight control system switched to a second thruster in the same pod.
“It fired for about 25 seconds and then it went out,” Mr Nappi said. “Again, the flight control system took over and did what it was supposed to do. It went to a third thruster, and we had a successful orbital insertion.
Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said that even if the third booster in this pod failed, “I suspect we could complete the mission without issue with the remaining clusters.”
Engineers will see if they can get the faulty thrusters working again, and Nappi said Starliner’s other systems appear to be working well.
“So the spacecraft is in excellent condition,” he said.
Just over 24 hours after launch, Starliner is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station.
Although this mission does not carry any astronauts, one of Starliner’s seats is occupied by a dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer.
There’s also over 800 pounds of cargo on board, mostly food and supplies for the space station crew, but also souvenirs. The spacecraft must bring back nearly 600 pounds of cargo from the space station.
After four or five days tethered to the space station, Starliner is to return to Earth, to one of five locations in the western United States. While most of America’s astronaut capsules have splashed down in the ocean – including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon – Starliner is parachuting to earth and landing on airbags.
If all goes well, the flight will provide NASA with enough data to certify that the spacecraft can carry people to space safely. A demonstration flight with two or three astronauts on board could be launched by the end of the year.
During the first uncrewed test flight in December 2019, the problems started almost immediately after reaching orbit.
A software error caused the Starliner’s clock to be set to the wrong time. This caused the onboard computer to try to move the spacecraft to where it thought the craft should be. Firing the thrusters used up much of the propellant, and plans to dock Starliner with the space station were cancelled.
While troubleshooting this issue, Boeing engineers discovered a second fault that would have caused the wrong thrusters to fire as the capsule prepared for re-entry, potentially leading to the destruction of the spacecraft. They fixed this software flaw while Starliner circled the Earth and the capsule landed safely in White Sands, NM
These problems put a damper on what would have been the next step: a demonstration flight with astronauts on board. NASA told Boeing it had to repeat the uncrewed test flight, at Boeing’s expense.
Boeing spent more than a year revamping and retesting the software, and in August of last year Starliner was back on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, atop a second Atlas 5 rocket.
The countdown started, but had to be interrupted. Flight directors discovered that 13 valves in Starliner’s propulsion system had failed to open.
Boeing then spent about eight months investigating the corrosion that had caused the valves to stick. Boeing swapped the service module – the piece of Starliner under the capsule that houses the propulsion system – with the one that had been slated for the next mission.
NASA has hired two companies to fly astronauts to and from the station: SpaceX and Boeing. At the time of Boeing’s 2019 test flight, it looked like Starliner would beat SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for the first mission with astronauts.
But with Starliner remaining on the ground, SpaceX has since launched seven Crew Dragon missions with astronauts. In addition to the five missions for NASA, two others carried private citizens into orbit.
SpaceX’s missions also appear to be significantly cheaper than Boeing’s. Still, NASA officials say they’re committed to Starliner and that having two systems provides competition, innovation and flexibility.