Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft takes flight today. Unless it’s not.
Nearly 29 months have passed since the company’s first attempt to demonstrate that Starliner could safely launch into orbit, fly to the International Space Station and dock, then return to Earth in a New Zealand desert. Mexico under three parachutes. During that December 2019 test flight, of course, there were myriad software glitches, and Starliner ended up running out of fuel to get to the space station.
As part of its fixed-price contract with NASA – the space agency is paying Boeing about $5.1 billion to develop a crew transport system to the space station – the company has agreed to re-flight the demonstration. Boeing thought it was ready for that repeat flight last August, but hours before launch, more than a dozen valves in Starliner’s propulsion system jammed. The attempt was called off, so Boeing was never able to test its revised software code.
Since August, Boeing and NASA have been working to understand the problem with the valves, which turned out to be due to ambient humidity causing corrosion inside the valves. Engineers then implemented fixes. Due to this additional delay, Boeing suffered a loss of $600 million to fly this second demonstration mission, known as Orbital Flight Test-2.
Today’s launch is scheduled for 6:54 p.m. ET (22:54 UTC) atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Launch coverage will begin at 6 p.m. ET on NASA TV. Weather looks generally favourable, with a 70% chance of “starting” conditions during the instant launch window.
Upon launch, the Atlas V rocket with two solid rocket boosters will deliver Starliner to an altitude of 181 km, at which time the spacecraft will rocket into an orbital trajectory. It will be the 93rd overall launch for the rocket, which is built by United Launch Alliance and has an excellent reliability record.
The stakes are high for Boeing and NASA. It is highly likely that Boeing has now lost money developing Starliner over the past decade. Recently, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said she thinks the company is unlikely to take on the program if it has a chance to do it all over again. The sooner Boeing can put Starliner into operational status, the better it will be financially, as it can serve both NASA and attract other private market customers.
The space agency, meanwhile, would love a second way to reach the space station. He is confident in the capability of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle – which NASA has paid $3.1 billion for and has been flying astronauts safely since mid-2020 – but with uncertainty in Russia, the agency space can no longer rely on access to the Soyuz vehicle.
One of the NASA astronauts who will take part in one of the first Starliner missions, Butch Wilmore, told a press conference Wednesday that Boeing and the space agency were confident ahead of Thursday’s launch attempt. “This spacecraft is ready,” he said. “Teams are ready. Boeing is ready. ULA is ready. The mission operations managers who will control the spacecraft in space are ready. And we’re excited.”
If all goes well with the launch, the uncrewed Starliner spacecraft will dock with the space station on Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET (23:10 UTC). This will allow Starliner and its heavily revised software to pass a key test for NASA. After several days tethered to the station, Starliner is expected to return to Earth next week. Success of the overall mission would likely set up a crewed test launch for Starliner in the first half of 2023.