Starliner takes off on 1st flight with NASA astronauts

After making two trips to the launch pad and never making it to space, two NASA astronauts finally went into orbit on Wednesday in a vehicle built by space giant Boeing.

Starliner’s maiden voyage to carry astronauts comes after four years and six days with astronauts on board. Boeing is now ready to offer that service, but a series of costly delays has prevented astronauts from flying the company’s vehicle in the past. SpaceX, once seen aloft, has sent a total of 13 crews into orbit.

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

“This is another milestone in this extraordinary history of NASA,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a news conference after the launch.

When the Starliner arrives at the space station on Thursday, it will join the SpaceX crew’s Dragon capsule already docked there. NASA officials were adamant that there should be two different U.S. spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts into orbit.

“We always like to have a backup,” Mr. Nelson said. “It’s safer for our astronauts.”

If the vehicle’s work goes well, it will provide some good news for Boeing, whose aviation safety record has come under intense scrutiny after the side panel of an Alaska Airlines jet exploded during flight earlier this year.

Boeing’s space division is also under pressure, with the Starliner’s mission lasting years longer than the company or NASA expected. Inadequate software testing, corroded propellant valves, flammable tape and a key component in the parachute system turned out to be weaker than expected.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore, left, and Suni Williams leave the Operations and Checkout Building at Cape Canaveral Wednesday morning.debt…Joe Radle/Getty Images

Minutes before launch, mission commander Butch Willmore said: “Let’s fire up this rocket a little bit. Let’s push it to the sky”

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“Let’s go, Calypso, take us to space and back,” says Suni Williams, the other crew member who serves as the pilot, referring to the capsule she named after the ship used by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

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“Suni and I are proud to share this dream of space travel with each and every one of you. And with that, let’s put some fire in this rocket and push it into the sky while these tough Americans get it ready. “Let’s go Calypso. Take us to space and back.

debtdebt…NASA, via Reuters

At 10:52 a.m. ET, the Atlas V rocket’s engines ignited and lifted the Starliner spacecraft on a curved path into space. Today’s flight’s launch and initial segments into orbit provided a welcome relief, unfolding smoothly.

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“Houston, Starliner. “Roger.”

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debtdebt…NASA via Reuters

“I’m laughing, believe me,” said Mark Nappi, the Boeing official in charge of the Starliner. “But it’s a bit of a restrained emotion because there are a lot of phases to this work. We’ve completed the first one.

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“You’ve got a nice throttle up.” “Good throttle.” “Good SRB burnout.” “Nice SRB.”

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debtdebt…NASA, via Reuters

During the ride to orbit there was a slight glitch in the cooling system. The cooling system, called a sublimator, used slightly more water than expected. Once in orbit, the spacecraft switched to a different cooling system, a radiator, and while engineers investigated what happened, it didn’t affect the mission.

Mr. Wilmore and Mrs. Williams will join the station on Thursday at 12:15 p.m.

On the way, Mr. Wilmore and Mrs. Williams will take the time to test fly the spacecraft manually, something that is not normally necessary except in an emergency. Life support systems will also be thoroughly checked.

Astronauts will stay on the space station for at least eight days before returning to Earth. The task consists of a total of 87 test objectives. “There are a lot of, I would call them ergonomic type flight test objectives,” Mr. Nappy said. “How do the seats fit? How do the costumes work? What do the scenes look like?”

After the mission, NASA and Boeing will review data from the flight to complete Starliner’s certification. The shuttle will be ready to launch operational flights once a year to carry NASA crews for their six-month stay on the space station. Each Starliner capsule — Boeing has two for orbital missions — is designed for 10 missions.

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debtdebt…NASA, via Reuters

The route for Wednesday’s flight was years in the making.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing, the rocket company run by Elon Musk, and SpaceX, and NASA began paying Russia to build replacements for the space shuttles that carried astronauts to the space station before their retirement in 2011. Astronauts ride on Soyuz rockets.

Congress was skeptical, and the trade group repeatedly cut money NASA sought for the program. At the time, SpaceX was on the rise, but not the dominant force in the rocketry industry it is today. Boeing’s choice helped reassure lawmakers that NASA was making a sound investment.

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

Both companies took longer than planned, which is not unusual in the aerospace industry.

But in December 2019, Boeing appeared to be on the homestretch. Then a test of the Starliner without astronauts went awry due to software problems, and the planned docking was aborted. NASA labeled the flight a “high-visibility close call” because software flaws could have led to the destruction of the spacecraft if not fixed before re-entry.

In April, the Starliner capsule emerges from the commercial terminal and cargo processing facility at Cape Canaveral.debt…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Boeing and NASA decided to repeat the non-commissioned test, but that test was delayed by corroded propellant valves and the Starliner did not launch again until May 2022.

Then more problems arose. The protective tape wrapped around the wiring insulation became flammable, and if the Starliner’s three parachutes had not been properly deployed, a vital but fragile component of the parachute system would have broken.

Those delays cost Boeing $1.4 billion, and while Starliner was on the ground, SpaceX launched nine crewed missions for NASA (one, Crew-8, currently stationed) and four additional commercial missions with non-NASA passengers.

This year’s launch trials began on May 6. The plane crashed due to a faulty valve in the Atlas V rocket. A small helium leak was discovered in the Starliner’s propulsion system, leading to a weeks-long investigation.

A second launch attempt on Saturday was 3 minutes and 50 seconds before liftoff, until the computers autonomously handling the final parts of the launch sequence encountered a problem and halted the countdown.

Over the next few days, technicians replaced a faulty electrical component, setting the stage for Wednesday’s successful launch.

Niraj Chokshi Contributed report.

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