June 20, 2024

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Starliner takes off on its first flight with NASA astronauts on board

Starliner takes off on its first flight with NASA astronauts on board

After two trips to the launch pad that did not end in space, two NASA astronauts finally headed into orbit on Wednesday in a vehicle built by Boeing, the aerospace giant.

The maiden flight of the Starliner, a 15-foot-wide capsule with astronauts on board, comes four years and six days after SpaceX, the other company hired by NASA to provide astronaut flights, launched its first mission with astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing is now scheduled to offer this service as well, but a series of costly delays prevented astronauts from flying the company’s vehicle earlier. SpaceX, once seen as a startup, has flown 13 crews into orbit in total.

The long-awaited flight of Boeing’s spacecraft is the latest step in NASA’s efforts to rely more on the private sector for its human spaceflight program.

“This is another milestone in this extraordinary history for NASA,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a post-launch press conference.

When the Starliner arrives at the space station on Thursday, it will join a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule already docked there. NASA officials have consistently stressed that they want to have two different American spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts into orbit.

“We always like to have a backup,” Mr. Nelson said. “This makes it safer for our astronauts.”

If the vehicle’s mission goes well, it will also provide some good news for Boeing, whose aviation safety record is under intense scrutiny after an Alaska Airlines plane’s side panel exploded during a flight earlier this year.

Boeing’s space division has also been under pressure, with work on the Starliner extending for years longer than the company or NASA had expected. Technical risks included inadequate software testing, corrosion of thrust valves, flammable tape, and a key component of the parachute system that turned out to be weaker than expected.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore, left, and Sonny Williams leave the Operations and Exit Building at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday morning.credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A few minutes before launch, Butch Wilmore, mission commander, said: “Let’s put some fire in this rocket. Let’s push it into the sky.”

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Sonny Williams, the other crew member serving as a pilot, added: “Let’s go, Calypso, take us to space and back,” referring to the name she gave the capsule, after the ship used by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

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“Sonny and I are honored to share the dream of space flight with each and every one of you. So, let’s get going, let’s put some fire in this rocket and push it into the sky, while these mighty Americans get ready. “Let’s go, Calypso. Take us to space and back.”

creditcredit…NASA via Reuters

At 10:52 a.m. ET, the Atlas 5 rocket’s engines ignited, lifting the Starliner spacecraft on a curved trajectory into space. The launch and early portions of today’s orbital journey were a welcome relief, as they were executed smoothly.

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“Houston, Starliner. Yes.”

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creditcredit…NASA via Reuters

“I’m smiling, believe me,” said Mark Nappi, the Boeing official in charge of the Starliner. “But there’s a little bit of emotional overpowering, because there are a lot of stages to this mission. And we’ve just completed the first part.”

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“You got a good choke.” “Good choke.” “SRB fatigue is good.” “Good SRB.”

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creditcredit…NASA via Reuters

A minor malfunction occurred in the system that provides cooling during the flight into orbit. The cooling system, known as a sublimator, used a little more water than expected. Once the spacecraft reached orbit, it switched to a different cooling system, the cryogenic, and while engineers will investigate what happened, it will not affect the mission.

Mr Wilmore and Ms Williams are scheduled to dock at the station at 12:15pm on Thursday.

Along the way, Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams will take time to manually test fly the spacecraft, something that is not usually necessary except in emergency situations. Life support systems will also be fully checked.

The astronauts will then spend at least eight days on the space station before returning to Earth. The mission has 87 test targets in total. “There are a lot of these types, I would call them comfortable types of flight test targets,” Mr. Nappi said. “How do the seats fit? How do the suits work? What do the displays look like?”

After the mission, NASA and Boeing will review data from the flight to complete Starliner certification. The spacecraft will then be ready to begin operational flights once a year to transport NASA crews for a six-month stay at the space station. Each Starliner capsule — Boeing has two for orbital missions — is designed for 10 missions.

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creditcredit…NASA via Reuters

The road to Wednesday’s trip has been under construction for years.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, the rocket company run by Elon Musk, to build replacements for the space shuttles that ferried astronauts to and from the space station before they were retired in 2011. NASA had begun paying Russia to fly its space plane. . Astronauts into orbit on Soyuz rockets.

Congress was skeptical, and repeatedly reduced funds sought by NASA for the Commercial Crew Program. At the time, SpaceX was on the rise, but it was not the dominant force it is today in the rocket launch industry. Choosing Boeing helped reassure lawmakers that NASA was making a sound investment.

NASA originally said Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could be ready by 2017.

Both took longer than planned, which is uncommon in the airline industry.

But in December 2019, Boeing appeared to have reached its limits. Then a Starliner test without astronauts on board failed due to software problems, and the planned docking was cancelled. NASA described the flight as a “high-definition close call” because software flaws could have destroyed the spacecraft if they had not been fixed before re-entering the atmosphere.

A Starliner capsule in April, launching from the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Cape Canaveral.credit…Chandan Khanna/AFP – Getty Images

Boeing and NASA decided to repeat the unmanned test, but this test was delayed due to wear of the thrust valves and the Starliner was not launched again until May 2022.

Then more issues arose. The protective tape that was wrapped around the wire insulation turned out to be flammable, and a key but vulnerable component of the parachute system would have broken if the Starliner’s three parachutes had not deployed properly.

These delays cost Boeing $1.4 billion, and while the Starliner remained on Earth, SpaceX launched nine crewed missions for NASA (one of which, Crew-8, is currently docked at the station) and four additional commercial missions with non-NASA passengers on board.

This year’s round of launch attempts began on May 6. That flight was aborted due to a fault in the valve on the Atlas V rocket. A small helium leak was subsequently discovered in the Starliner’s propulsion system, leading to several weeks of investigation.

The second launch attempt on Saturday lasted 3 minutes and 50 seconds before liftoff, until computers independently handling the final parts of the launch sequence ran into a problem and stopped the countdown.

Over the next few days, technicians replaced the faulty power component, paving the way for a successful launch on Wednesday.

Neeraj Chokshi Contributed to reports.