Nearly two-and-a-half years after its first launch was unplanned, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft CST-100 Starliner was successfully launched into space this afternoon, reaching the perfect orbit to meet with the International Space Station. Tomorrow evening. The successful launch marks the launch of an important test flight for the Starliner, which will play in space next week, which will one day help prove whether it is capable of carrying humans into space.
The Starliner is a private spacecraft developed by Boeing in collaboration with NASA, primarily to transport the agency’s astronauts into and out of low Earth orbit to the International Space Station. The capsule is one of two vehicles funded by NASA in conjunction with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to transfer space transport from government to commercial enterprises. But before NASA’s astronauts ride on the Starliner, the astronauts want to prove that the Boeing capsule can do all the tasks of a normal space flight without a crew.
Today’s plane is designed to do that, but There is a bumpy road to get to this place. In fact, this work has been repeated. Boeing tried again the same crew-less Starliner aircraft in December 2019, but that task – called OFT – encountered a series of software flaws. The capsule did not arrive at the International Space Station, and Boeing had to bring the Starliner home in advance, failing to prove its capability at dock with the ISS. Boeing agreed to redo the flight to NASA and was close to launching again last summer. But a few hours before the flight’s departure, Boeing stopped the plane after discovering that some of the drive valves were not working properly. To solve this problem the company had to bring Starliner back into the factory.
Now, Starliner is finally in orbit where it should be. “We have a good orbital insertion flame,” said Josh Barrett, Boeing’s spokesman, at the launch. “Starliner is in a stable, circular orbit on its way to the International Space Station.”
But there is still a lot to prove before that. Next, it should show that it can automatically connect to the International Space Station, guiding it to the open docking port using its internal sensors. After that, unwrap it and come home and return safely to Earth. So while Starliner is seeing success today, work has only just begun.
However, Boeing has shown that it has overcome the problems it faced in 2019. The biggest nail-biting moment could have occurred today, about 31 minutes after launch, when Starliner burned a set of onboard thrusters to engage itself in its final orbit. The Atlas V rocket, powered by the United Launch Alliance, launches the Starliner into space, but does not work when it detaches from the booster. The four thrusters in the Starliner must burn for less than a minute to get the capsule in the correct orbit. During the 2019 flight, a software glitch made Starliner think it was the wrong time of day, causing the capsule to shoot its thrusters wrong. As a result, Starliner expended too much momentum and did not go into the exact orbit required to reach the ISS.
Today, Thruster shooting was good in the beginning, and Starliner is in orbit with its purpose. However, after the flight, Boeing revealed that the two thrusters actually failed when inserting into orbit, closing earlier than planned. After a second the first was stopped, and the flight control system was moved to a nearby second thruster. However, that too stopped shortly after 25 seconds, and the system had to adapt to a third drive, which worked as planned. Overall, this did not affect Starliner’s ability to reach its planned orbit. Boeing has been studying this issue, however, and the company and NASA claim that the failed thrusters should not affect Starliner’s ability to perform the remaining tasks.
“We will look at the data and try to understand what happened,” Steve Stitch, project manager for NASA’s Business Group, told a news conference after the flight. “Then from a layoff perspective, can we recapture those impulses?” Starliner will reuse its thrusters to make burns, change its orbit as it approaches the station and pull the capsule out of orbit as it returns to Earth. According to Boeing, ten of the 12 thrusters required for Starliner work.
Boeing had no problem with its drive valves this time, which led the company to scrub its final release in August 2021. Prior to this flight, Boeing replaced the valves and added a sealant to prevent moisture. Problems.
Now, Starliner will spend the next day in space, gradually lifting its orbit and attempting to connect with the ISS at 7:10 PM ET on Friday night. Team members at the space station will monitor the capsule’s approach. If it is successful, they will open the hatch for Starliner on Saturday and retrieve some of the cargo that was packed inside. Inside the Starliner is a mannequin called Rosie the Rocket, as well as sensors that help future passengers collect data to determine what the aircraft will look like. After four or five days of landing on the ISS, the Starliner will land and return home, landing somewhere on Earth at one of five possible sites, including the White Sands missile launch in New Mexico.
Depending on how the mission progresses, NASA and Boeing will be responsible for preparing the Starliner for human spaceflight, and will conduct a test flight with those on board called the CFT for a crude flight test. The company said it would finalize the first crew to work on Starliner in late summer, as NASA has selected a team of astronauts to fly on the mission.
There is likely to be a long way to go before that happens. Last week, a NASA security team noted that the process of certifying the parachutes needed to land the Starliner was delayed. In addition, Boeing recently noted that the company has the potential to redesign valves that caused problems for the company last year. If that happens, it may take longer for NASA to certify Starliner for manned transport. The security team warned not to rush.
“Despite all the indications, the team is pleased that there is no need to rush to the CFT,” Dave West, a member of NASA’s Space Defense Advisory Committee, said during the meeting. “Our constant feedback is that the program is ready for CFT.”
The team also noted that the best way to prepare for CFT is to have the current aircraft go well. It will be decided next week whether that will happen.
Updated May 19, 9:40 PM ET: The story was updated to include information from a post-release press conference describing the Thruster issue during the flight.