Though NASA confirmed no one was in danger and ground teams regained control of the space station after about an hour, Starliner’s take off will be delayed in order to allow mission control to “continue working checkouts of the newly arrived Nauka module and to ensure the station will be ready for Starliner’s arrival.”
Boeing’s Starliner test launch is among the most important missions of the year for the company and NASA. The spacecraft is expected to be Boeing’s answer to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has already begun flying astronauts and ushered in the return of human spaceflight to US soil after a decade-long haitus. Both Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon were developed under contract with NASA, though they’ll be owned and operated by their respective companies, and are designed to take astronauts and possibly tourists to and from the ISS.
If all goes according to plan during Starliner’s upcoming uncrewed test mission, the fully autonomous Starliner spacecraft will spend a few days in orbit — without humans on board — and dock with the International Space Station to demonstrate that the capsule is capable of getting the job does safely. It’ll then return to Earth for a parachute landing in the New Mexico desert.
This mission’s success is crucial for Boeing, which has been working since the early 2010s to develop a spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to and from the ISS but has encountered numerous delays and technical hangups.
NASA and Boeing are anxious to see Starliner complete this test run safely so that it can move on to regular operations.
What will happen
The Starliner, which will fly with an empty cabin except for a test flight dummy named Rosie and about 475 pounds of cargo and supplies, will vault into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket, which is built by joint-Boeing-and-Lockheed Martin-venture United Launch Alliance and has a spotless 15-year track record of launching satellites and other cargo.
The real test will come after the Starliner spacecraft separates from the Atlas V rocket and begins freeflying in space. The spacecraft will need to use its on-board computers and thrusters to slowly maneuver itself toward the ISS, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth.
It’s expected to dock with the ISS on Wednesday afternoon.
If all goes well, the seven astronauts on board the ISS will be able to retrieve the cargo Starliner is hauling. Then they’ll load the vehicle back up with nearly 600 pounds of cargo, completed science experiments and garbage to be sent back down to Earth. A safe landing could pave the way for Boeing to launch the first Starliner mission with astronauts on board later this year.
What happened last time
During that first uncrewed flight test of Starliner, problems arose almost immediately A software issue caused the spacecraft to misfire, sending it hurtling off course and forcing it to make an early return to Earth without having docked with the ISS.
During press briefings this week, Boeing officials said the spacecraft’s software is now bolstered with new algorithms designed to help it quickly solve communications blackout issues. The company also addressed more than 80 issues identified in an independent investigation as well as hired Jinnah Hosein, a former SpaceX engineer, in November 2020 as its vice president of software engineering and is working to ensure “we were looking at hardware-software integration and not just software as a discipline alone,” Boeing’s Starliner program manager John Vollmer said.
Why this matters
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is the result of a decade-long effort by NASA and its corporate partners to replace the Space Shuttle program, which for 30 years was the primary means of transportation to space for US astronauts. The Shuttle program retired in 2011, and that left the United States to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to space and keep the US segment of the ISS fully staffed, a challenging and less-than-ideal arrangement, though the countries still work closely together in space, according to NASA.
(The International Space Station has been a joint project led by NASA and Roscosmos, from even before the first segment was launched in 1998, and since that time has been used mostly for science and the occasional tourist visit.)
NASA’s contracts with Boeing for this program total $4.82 billion, while SpaceX’s are worth $3.14 billion. (The price difference is attributed to how much the companies bid as well as how far along SpaceX was in the development of its Dragon spacecraft prior to landing those NASA contracts.)
NASA took a back seat during SpaceX’s and Boeing’s development programs, though it’s still been heavily involved, providing oversight of tests and sending in verification teams to help ensure the vehicles are fit to fly.
But the payoff, as NASA advertises it, is not one but two privately operated spacecraft that can handle getting astronauts to and from the ISS while the space agency focuses on its more ambitious goals of putting astronauts back on the moon and exploring deep space.
There’s also, according to the exploration advocacy nonprofit Planetary Society, a huge cost benefit.