With a successful liftoff and after nearly 2 1/2 years, NASA and Boeing want to hit the target this time with their new and improved CST-100 Starliner on a redo of its uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station.
The new capsule blasted off atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday at 6:54 p.m. Eastern time on what’s dubbed Orbital Flight Test-2. Florida’s notorious afternoon showers steered away from the Space Coast with a flawless countdown.
While the launch worked as planned, it wasn’t until 40 minutes after that Boeing announced a successful orbital insertion, something it wasn’t able to accomplish the last time Starliner headed to space.
That trip in December 2019 had communication and software issues that caused a major misstep in Boeing’s plans to join SpaceX as one of two partners in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. The capsule launched and landed safely, but it never made it to the ISS.
SpaceX has since surged ahead flying humans to the station for the first time in its Crew Dragon in May 2020 and is in the midst of its fourth operational flight there.
“We always wanted to have more than one provider,” said NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Janet Petro ahead of the launch. “So having a second provider that we can purchase a commercial service from to transport our astronauts to and from the International Space Station gives us a reliability, a redundancy that we really need and we really want within our Commercial Crew Program.”
Starliner had been on pace with SpaceX before the 2019 setback, an incident NASA referred to as a “high visibility close call” that led to a postlaunch review calling for 80 changes to the program. After nearly 18 months of fixes, Boeing was back last August for a retry. But that attempt was foiled when moisture caused corrosion on several valves, and Starliner was delayed another nine months.
Now, with new hardware in place and issues resolved, the spacecraft can finally finish the job, which is being done at no cost to NASA since it’s a reflight. If all goes as planned, the Starliner will dock with the ISS on Friday at 7:10 p.m. Eastern time and could return to Earth as early as May 25.
Kathryn Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, though, tempered expectations, reiterating that the mission remains a test flight.
“We’re going through this as a demonstration mission,” she said. “We learned a lot from the first uncrewed demo. We’re going to learn a lot from the second one. … So we’ll all learn. We’re going to take this one step at a time. I think you guys may be tired of me saying that.”
Starliner’s next flight with passengers could come later this year. Previously, NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore and Michael Fincke had been assigned, but final crew assignments for the Crew Flight Test, or CFT, will be coming later this summer, NASA officials said.
Wilmore, Fincke and astronaut Sunita Williams, originally assigned to the first operational flight, were on hand at Kennedy Space Center when Starliner was rolled out to the launch pad, helping check out the capsule ahead of liftoff.
“We’re going to learn stuff, not everything is going to go 100%,” said Williams after the launch. “We learn stuff every time we take something to space and so we’re going to take those lessons learned from this mission and apply it to the next launch, which is the crewed flight test.”
The capsule will fly with four passengers during normal rotational missions, but might only fly with two for CFT.
This Starliner isn’t flying up empty, though. It’s taking up about 800 pounds of cargo and bringing back 600 pounds. And while no humans are along for the ride this time, seated in the capsule is a stand-in mannequin named Rosie the Rocketeer, which has sensors to measure just what humans will feel during launch and landing.
Wilmore said the astronauts were jealous, “because this is human spaceflight. And Rosie the mannequin is the one that gets to take the trip instead of us. But obviously this is part of the evolution of test.”
The three will be paying especially close attention to all the parts of the OFT-2 mission that were not able to be performed the first time around, specifically the docking and undocking with the ISS using a never-before-used rendezvous sensor package. Mission managers will also be able to monitor the emergency abort system on launch, something that was not in place for OFT-1. Other objectives include making sure the vehicle’s thermal shield holds up, looking at how the atmosphere is exchanged while docked with the ISS, and making sure that ISS crew can sync data with Starliner.
“We’re really looking forward to the spacecraft coming home because that’s when the rest of the work will start to happen,” Williams said. “One of the things that Rosie doesn’t do, she doesn’t breathe and so we will be the first ones when we get in it to be the breathers, the creators of carbon dioxide. So we want the spacecraft to get back so we can start testing the environmental control system with the interaction with people. So there’s a lot of work ahead of us before we get to the crewed flight, but we’re chomping at the bit.”
Fincke, who has been a test pilot during his career, said the notion that Starliner’s first uncrewed flight was a failure of sorts doesn’t jibe with his take on the spacecraft.
“This is how we do it,” he said. “If something doesn’t work right, we fix it and go fly it again. This is exactly what Boeing decided to do. They’re going to get it right this time, and then we’re going to have super confidence for the crew onboard for Crew Flight Test.”
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