Two and a half years after an initial orbital flight test fell short, Boeing is trying once again to put its CST-100 Starliner space capsule through an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station and back.
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket sent Starliner spaceward from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET (3:54 p.m. PT) today. Boeing and NASA are hoping that this second orbital flight test, known as OFT-2, will pave the way for Starliner’s first crewed flight later this year.
Within OFT-2’s first hour, Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage and executed an engine burn to reach its intended orbit. “It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it is really just the beginning,” NASA commentator Brandi Dean said. “We’ve got a number of demonstrations now that the Starliner will have to go through ahead of its International Space Station arrival.”
Boeing has received billions of dollars from NASA to develop Starliner as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for sending astronauts into orbit. NASA’s arrangement with SpaceX and Boeing has been compared to a taxi service, with the space agency paying the spacecraft providers for rides.
The hope was that Boeing’s gumdrop-shaped capsule could start carrying NASA astronauts in 2020, around the time that Crew Dragon had its first crewed flight. But Starliner’s first uncrewed flight test in December 2019 failed to reach the orbit it needed to be in for a space station rendezvous, due to a glitch in an automated timer system.
After Starliner’s premature return to Earth, investigators found more than 60 corrective actions that needed to be taken. Boeing set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to make the fixes and geared up for a do-over last August. But a valve problem forced a last-minute postponement of the reflight.
It took months to fix the problem and get ready for today’s launch.
The flight plan follows the course that was intended for the first test in 2019: Starliner will catch up with the space station for an automated rendezvous a day after launch. Even though this is primarily a test mission, the capsule is carrying about 500 pounds of cargo and crew supplies for NASA — plus 300 pounds of cargo for Boeing, including company founder Bill Boeing’s ID card for air travel.
After several days of on-orbit checkouts, Starliner is scheduled to unhook from the space station on May 25 and descend to a touchdown in the western U.S., aided by parachutes and airbags. White Sands Missile Range is the primary landing site, with backup sites in Arizona, Utah and California. About 600 pounds of cargo will be brought back to Earth.
NASA and Boeing will analyze data from the mission before determining the timing for the Crew Flight Test, or CFT for short.
This time around, Starliner’s only occupant is a sensor-equipped mannequin nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer. But three living, breathing NASA astronauts — Butch Wilmore, Mike Fincke and Suni Williams — are already waiting in the wings and watching to see what happens to Rosie.
“We are more than thrilled to be here,” Wilmore told reporters during a pre-launch news briefing. “We’re also very, very jealous, because this is human spaceflight, and Rosie the mannequin is the one that gets to take the trip instead of us.”
Update for 8:15 p.m. PT May 19: During a post-launch news briefing, NASA and Boeing officials said that two of Starliner’s thrusters shut down prematurely during orbital insertion. The orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters, also known as OMAC thrusters, were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne.
“We’ve got to do a little bit more work to figure out why they failed off,” said Steve Stich, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for commercial crew, said the first thruster failed about one second into the burn. A second thruster took over and fired for 25 seconds before it shut down, he said. A third thruster kicked in and was able to complete the burn.
The OMAC system has four sets of three aft-facing thrusters, adding up to a total of 12 thrusters that are used for major maneuvers. “The system is designed to be redundant, and it performed like it was supposed to,” Nappi said.
Stich said that “we’re in a good posture to go finish the rest of the mission” with the remaining aft-facing thrusters.
Update for 2:10 p.m. PT June 6: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said the balky thrusters that are part of the maneuvering system on Starliner’s service module were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash. The Redmond team provides the crew module’s thrusters, but the thrusters on the service module are provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Los Angeles team. Sorry about the error!
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