Boeing’s Starliner finally ready for first manned mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, United States: Launch day has finally arrived: Boeing’s Starliner capsule will blast off to the International Space Station on Monday for its first crewed mission — several years after SpaceX first reached the same milestone. The flight, a final test before Starliner takes up regular service for NASA, is crucial for the US aerospace giant, whose reputation has suffered recently due to safety problems with some of its passenger jets.

Starliner, first ordered by the US space agency a decade ago, has had a bumpy ride to the finish line, with surprising setbacks and multiple delays – a story Boeing is keen to complete.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will leave Cape Canaveral on Monday at 10:34 PM (0234 GMT Tuesday) aboard the capsule. Starliner will be launched into orbit by an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Wilmore and Williams, Navy-trained veterans of the space program, have each been to the ISS twice, once on a shuttle and then aboard a Russian Soyuz ship.

“It will be like going back home,” Williams said. As for Boeing’s spacecraft, Wilmore said, “Everything is new. Everything is unique.” “I don’t think any of us ever dreamed that we would be associated with the first flight of a brand new spacecraft.”

For NASA, the stakes are also high: Having a second option for human spaceflight besides SpaceX’s Dragon vehicles is “very important,” said Dana Weigel, manager of the agency’s International Space Station program. Weigel said the flexibility could help NASA manage emergencies, such as problems with a particular space vehicle.

Starliner is expected to arrive at the ISS around 0500 GMT on Wednesday and stay there for just over a week. Tests will be conducted to ensure the capsule is working properly, and then Williams and Wilmore will board the capsule again to return home. A successful mission would help dispel the bitter taste of the Starliner program’s numerous setbacks.

In 2019, the capsule was not placed on the correct trajectory during a first unmanned test flight and returned without reaching the ISS. Then in 2021, as the rocket was on the launch pad for another flight, blocked valves forced another postponement.

The empty ship eventually reached the ISS in May 2022. Since then, Boeing has been working on the crewed test flight so that the capsule can be certified for use by NASA on regular ISS missions. It had hoped to conduct that flight in 2022, but problems continued to arise, particularly in the parachute system used to slow the spacecraft as it returns to Earth’s atmosphere. “There are some surprises along the way that we had to overcome,” said Boeing CEO Mark Nappi.

“It certainly made the team very strong and very proud of the way they overcame every problem we encountered.” he added: “It’s quite typical for a human spacecraft to take about 10 years from design to flying people.” NASA Administrator Jim Free predicted that the mission would not be without problems. “We certainly have some uncertainties in this mission, things that we expect to learn because it is a test mission. We may encounter things that we don’t expect,” Free said, noting that Starliner is only the sixth U.S.-built class of ships for NASA. astronauts.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule joined that exclusive club in 2020, following the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Once Starliner is fully operational, NASA hopes to switch between SpaceX and Boeing ships to transport astronauts to the ISS.

In 2014, the agency awarded fixed-price contracts of $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX to develop these capsules. “Everyone thought Boeing would get there first,” Erik Seedhouse, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told AFP.

“And the fact that SpaceX got there way before Starliner was very embarrassing for Boeing.” Although the ISS will be shut down in 2030, both Starliner and Dragon could be used in the future to taxi people to future private space stations, which several companies plan to build – AFP