Boeing’s second chance at a Doover got off to a successful start when Starliner, its space taxi, launched into orbit on Thursday.
The spacecraft was built for NASA to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But before it can do that, it must complete a test flight without astronauts to show that its systems are all working properly.
“Today feels really good and we have great confidence in the vehicle,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program, during a news conference a few hours after liftoff.
Two engines failed during a maneuver to place Starliner in a stable orbit, but the spacecraft was able to use its remaining engines to automatically adjust and continue on its course. Engineers investigate what went wrong.
Two previous attempts to undertake this preparatory trip – the first in December 2019 and the second in August 2021 – were both marred by serious technical problems. The setbacks have also cost Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Boeing is catching up with SpaceX, the newer space company founded by Elon Musk that has already put five NASA crews into orbit in the past two years.
A second transportation option for NASA also provides resilience in the event one of the spacecraft suffers an accident.
Otherwise, NASA would once again have to rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsules, which were the only means of transportation to orbit for American astronauts for nearly a decade. Cooperation between the United States and Russia on the space station has become politically complicated after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year.
At 6:54 p.m. Eastern time, the engines of an Atlas 5 rocket roared from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, lifting Starliner into the sky. Thirty-two minutes later it was safely in orbit.
Thursday’s launch came as a relief to Boeing and NASA officials. The countdown and the start went without any unpleasant surprises. The only failure occurred during the initial firing of Starliner’s thrusters required to give the spacecraft its final thrust into orbit.
At the rear of the spacecraft are four pods, each containing a cluster of three thrusters. One engine in each capsule began firing for the orbital deployment maneuver, which lasted about 40 seconds.
In one of the pods, the engine started firing and stopped after a second, Mr. Nappi said. The Starliner’s flight control system switched to a second engine in the same capsule.
“It fired for about 25 seconds and then shut down,” Mr Nappi said. “Again, the flight control system took over and did what it was supposed to. It went to a third engine and we had a successful orbital insertion.”
Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said that even if the third engine in this capsule failed, “I suspect we could complete the mission just fine with the remaining clusters.”
Engineers will see if they can get the failed engines working again, and Mr Nappi said the other systems on Starliner appear to be working fine.
“So the spacecraft is in excellent condition,” he said.
Starliner is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station a little over 24 hours after launch.
Although this mission does not carry astronauts, one of Starliner’s seats is occupied by a mannequin named Rosie the Rocketeer.
Also on board are more than 800 pounds of cargo, mostly food and supplies for the space station crew, but also some memorabilia. The spacecraft is scheduled to return nearly 600 pounds of cargo from the space station.
After four or five days at the space station, Starliner is scheduled to return to Earth at one of five locations in the western United States. While most American astronaut capsules have landed in the ocean — including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon — Starliner parachutes ashore and deploys on airbags.
If all goes well, the flight will provide NASA with enough data to confirm that the spacecraft can safely carry people into space. A demonstration flight with two or three astronauts on board could start as early as the end of the year.
During the first unmanned test flight in December 2019, problems began almost immediately after reaching orbit.
A software bug caused the Starliner’s clock to be set to the wrong time. This caused the onboard computer to attempt to place the spacecraft where it thought the ship should be. Firing the engines used up much of the fuel, and plans to dock Starliner with the space station were canceled.
In fixing this issue, Boeing engineers discovered a second error that would have resulted in the wrong engines firing as the capsule prepared for re-entry, potentially leading to the destruction of the spacecraft. They fixed this software bug while Starliner orbited the earth and the capsule landed safely in White Sands, NM
These problems prevented what would have been the next step: a demonstration flight with astronauts on board. NASA told Boeing that it would have to repeat the unmanned test flight at Boeing’s expense.
Boeing spent more than a year revising and retesting the software, and last August Starliner was back on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, on a second Atlas 5 rocket.
The countdown started but had to be stopped. Flight managers determined that 13 valves in the Starliner’s propulsion system would not open.
Boeing then spent about eight months investigating the corrosion that had caused the valves to remain closed. Boeing swapped out the service module — the piece of Starliner under the capsule that houses the propulsion system — with one planned for the next mission.
NASA hired two companies to ferry astronauts to and from the station: SpaceX and Boeing. At the time of Boeing’s test flight in 2019, it seemed like Starliner would beat SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for the first mission with astronauts.
But with Starliner staying grounded, SpaceX has since launched seven Crew Dragon missions with astronauts. In addition to the five missions for NASA, two other private individuals contributed to orbit.
SpaceX’s missions also appear to be significantly cheaper than Boeing’s. Still, NASA officials say they are committed to Starliner and that two systems offer competition, innovation and flexibility.