Boeing hopes to lure Starliner test flight for third time

Boeing’s crew capsule was launched into orbit Thursday on a repeated test flight without astronauts, after years of being grounded by defects that could devastate the spacecraft.

There was only one test dummy on board. If the capsule arrives at the International Space Station on Friday and all goes well, two or three Nasa test pilots could be deployed for the company’s first crewed flight later this year or early next year.

Boeing’s third shot in the high-stakes flight demo.

At least this time, Starliner quickly followed the space station to the appropriate orbit. But the crucial meeting and docking was approaching.

“This is another big day for us,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and director of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “So we may have a few sleepless nights ahead of us to get through the rest of the mission, but it feels really good today.”

Starliner’s first test flight in 2019 suffered software glitches so severe that the capsule entered the wrong orbit and had to bypass the space station. The spacecraft was about to be destroyed as ground controllers hastily interrupted the mission.

After dozens of security fixes, Boeing returned a different capsule to the launch pad last summer. Worn valves stopped the countdown and caused a new round of repairs.

The long-running test flight program cost Boeing about $600 million.

“We’re not going to fly (crew) until we feel we’ve lowered the risks,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of space operations, on the eve of takeoff.

Boeing seeks redemption as it tries to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other contract taxi service. Elon Musk’s company has been flying astronauts to the space station for two years and providing cargo for a full ten years.

Seeking to reduce its high-priced reliance on Russia for crew transport, Nasa hired Boeing and SpaceX to send astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ended in 2011. That’s why it’s so important that Boeing’s Starliner is successful, said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator. .

“We always want to have a backup in this situation,” Nelson said hours before takeoff.

Boeing’s fully automatic capsule, which is different in appearance but similar in function to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, will try to dock to the space station on its own. Station astronauts will be ready to steer the capsule with remote control if needed.

The Starliner will spend about five days on the space station before aiming to make a landing in the New Mexico desert next Wednesday.

NASA has yet to confirm which astronauts will be on the first Starliner crew. The program has lagged so far behind that the original three were pulled over. Leading candidates gathered at Cape Canaveral for the evening launch of the Starliner atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

“We’re excited about this because we’re next,” said astronaut Butch Wilmore.

Alongside Rosie the Rocketeer, the space-age version of WWII’s Rosie the Riveter, the capsule carries food and spacewalk supplies for the seven station residents. US spacewalks have been suspended since an astronaut’s helmet flooded in March. NASA is shipping extra absorbent pads for use on helmets in case an emergency spacewalk is required while the investigation continues.

Boeing also flies memorabilia from historically black colleges and universities, and tree seeds similar to those that Apollo astronauts took to the moon, called moon trees here on Earth.