Long-delayed Boeing Starliner ready for first piloted flight to space station

Boeing’s Starliner capsule sits atop the Atlas 5 rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a day before its planned launch. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

Years behind schedule and more than a billion dollars over budget, Boeing’s Starliner capsule is finally poised for its first piloted launch Monday, a critical test flight carrying two veteran astronauts to the International Space Station and in so doing, demonstrate an alternative to SpaceX’s already operational Crew Dragon.

While SpaceX has launched 50 astronauts, cosmonauts and civilians to orbit in 13 piloted Crew Dragon flights since May 2020, Boeing has been bedeviled by multiple technical problems that required extensive re-work — and an additional unpiloted test flight — to resolve.

But mission managers say all the known issues have been corrected, multiple other upgrades and improvements have been implemented and the spacecraft has been thoroughly tested to verify it is finally ready to safely carry astronauts to and from the space station.

No one is more eager for launch than the Starliner’s crew, both active-duty NASA astronauts.

“I have full confidence in the management that makes the decisions that filter down to the operations team, full confidence on the NASA side and the Boeing side,” said mission commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore. “There have been some issues in the past. That’s the past. That is not now.”

Co-pilot Sunita Williams agreed, adding “I feel like we’ve had a lot of lessons learned, and they’ve been incorporated. … We wouldn’t say we’re ready if we weren’t ready.”

Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore (left) and Sunita Williams plan to put the Starliner spacecraft through its paces. The visited the launch pad Saturday after the Atlas 5 rocket rolled out. Image: NASA.

The Starliner’s long-awaited liftoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is targeted for 10:34 p.m. EDT Monday, roughly the moment Earth’s rotation carries launch complex 41 into alignment with the space station’s orbit.

Wilmore and Williams are well suited to take the Starliner for its first piloted test drive. Both are former Navy test pilots and two of NASA’s most seasoned astronauts with four space flights, 11 spacewalks and 500 days in orbit between them. Both have flown to space aboard the space shuttle and Russia’s Soyuz crew ferry ship.

Now they are flying a new spacecraft on its first piloted flight.

“I remember getting selected for Test Pilot School and (wondering) if I’ll ever be the first to do something in an airplane that’s never been done,” Wilmore, a former F/A-18 carrier pilot, Desert Storm veteran and pastor, told CBS News. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined to be the crew for the first flight of a spacecraft. And here we are.”

Along with chalking up the first piloted flight of the Starliner, it will be the first launch of astronauts using an Atlas rocket since Gordon Cooper’s final Mercury flight more than 60 years ago.

While hundreds of Atlas’s have been launched since then, the latest-generation Atlas 5, equipped with a Russian-built RD-180 first stage engine, is once again “human rated,” with high-reliability components and a state-of-the-art emergency fault detection system designed to trigger a safe escape in the event of an impending launch failure.

“We’ve both been to a couple of launches,” Williams said. “One of them was an Air Force payload. I found out the price tag on that payload, and I was like, okay, if they’re launching that on that Atlas 5, I feel very comfortable sitting on (an) Atlas 5! It’s a great rocket.”

If the Atlas 5 runs into unexpected trouble, the Starliner, like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, features powerful abort motors capable of blasting the ship away from its booster at any point from the launch pad to orbit. The capsule then would descend to a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast of the United States.

While fully automatic, Wilmore and Williams can manually trigger an abort if necessary. The spacecraft also features two independent systems giving the pilots computer-assisted and direct manual control if major guidance, navigation or computer problems crop up during launch or in orbit.

The Starliner flight marks only the sixth time NASA has put astronauts aboard a new spacecraft for the first time. Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, called the Starliner Crew Flight test, or CFT, “an absolutely critical milestone.”

“The lives of our crew members, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, are at stake,” he said. “Let me just remind everybody again, this is a new spacecraft. I’ll also remind you this is a test flight. … We certainly have some unknowns in this mission, we may encounter things we don’t expect. But our job now is to remain vigilant and keep looking for issues.”

While he said he was confident the Starliner is ready to fly, Free said he did not want to “get too far ahead” since the crew has yet to complete a successful mission. But “when we do,” he added, “and when we certify Starliner, the United States will have two unique human space transportations that provide critical redundancy for ISS access.”

Assuming a problem-free launch, it will take the Starliner about 15 minutes to reach its initial orbit. The flight plan calls for Wilmore and Williams to monitor a mostly automated rendezvous with the space station, taking time out twice to manually fly the spacecraft, verifying the crew’s ability to fine-tune the trajectory or step in after a major malfunction.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket that will carry Starliner, pictured the day before launch at Cape Canaveral. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

Approaching the station from behind and below, the astronauts will catch up with the lab complex early Wednesday, docking at the station’s forward port at 12:48 a.m. on May 8.

They’ll be welcomed aboard by Expedition 71 commander Oleg Kononenko and his Soyuz MS-25 crewmates, Nikolai Chub and NASA’s Tracy Dyson, along with NASA Crew 8 commander Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, Jeanette Epps and cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin.

Wilmore and Williams plan to spend a little more than a week aboard the station, transferring 750 pounds of equipment to the lab, powering down the Starliner and making sure it can be used as a “safe haven” for visiting long-duration crews. The current plan calls for undocking on May 15, but that could change depending on weather at the landing site.

Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean at the end of a mission, the Starliner is designed to touch down on land, using parachutes and two sets of sequentially inflating airbags to ease the shock of touchdown. For the Crew Flight Test, a May 15 undocking would target landing at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

But given this is a test flight, NASA will not approve undocking unless winds at the landing site are 6 knots or less. The limit for the actual landing is 10 knots. As a result, NASA may replan for a night landing, when desert winds typically die down, at a different site.

Assuming the flight goes well, NASA managers hope to certify the Starliner for operational crew ferry missions starting next year, launching one Crew Dragon and one Starliner each year to change out space station crew through the program’s retirement at the end of the decade.

Commercial Crew Program marks major shift in human spaceflight

In the wake of the space shuttle’s retirement, NASA awarded two Commercial Crew Program contracts in 2014, one to SpaceX valued at $2.6 billion and the other to Boeing for $4.2 billion, to spur development of independent spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The goal was to end NASA’s post-shuttle reliance on Russia’s Soyuz and to resume launching American astronauts from U.S. soil aboard American rockets and spacecraft. Equally important to NASA: having two independent spacecraft for crew flights to the ISS in case one company’s ferry ship runs into problems that might ground it for an extended period.

The original target date for initial piloted CCP flights was 2017. Funding shortfalls in Congress and technical snags delayed development, including an explosion during a ground test that destroyed a SpaceX Crew Dragon.

But the California rocket builder still managed to kick off piloted flights in May 2020, successfully launching two NASA astronauts on a Crew Dragon test flight to the space station.

Since then, SpaceX has launched eight operational crew rotation flights to the station, three research missions to the lab funded by Houston-based Axiom Space and a purely commercial, two-man, two-woman trip to low-Earth orbit paid for by billionaire pilot and businessman Jared Isaacman. In all, 50 people have flown to orbit aboard Crew Dragons.

It’s been a different story for Boeing’s Starliner.

During an initial unpiloted test flight in December 2019, unexpected software and communications glitches​ prevented a planned rendezvous with the space station. Boeing corrected those problems and opted to carry out a second uncrewed test flight, at its own expense.

But during the second countdown, engineers ran into problems with stuck propulsion system valves​ in the Starliner’s service module. Engineers eventually traced the problem to moisture intrusion and corrosion, triggering another lengthy delay.\

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft approaches the International Space Station for docking May 20 on the unpiloted Orbital Flight Test-2 mission. Credit: NASA

The second Starliner test flight in May 2022 was a success, docking at the space station as planned and returning to Earth with a pinpoint landing. But in the wake of the flight, engineers discovered fresh problems: trouble with parachute harness connectors​ and concern about protective tape wrapped around wiring that could catch fire in a short circuit.

Work to correct those issues pushed the first crewed flight to this year. When all was said and done, Boeing spent more than $1 billion of its own money to pay for the additional test flight and corrective actions.

A critical time for Boeing

The CFT launching comes at a critical time for Boeing given the aftermath of two highly publicized 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 and more recently, the blow out of a cabin door “plug” during an Alaska Airlines flight that has raised fresh questions about the company’s safety culture.

For his part, Wilmore said he didn’t view the Starliner launch in the context of Boeing’s trouble with its airplanes.

“I don’t think it has necessarily anything to do with Boeing and a flight going off,” he said. “They’re all vitally important. This is human spaceflight. That adage you’ve heard since Apollo 13, failure is not an option? That has nothing specifically to do with Boeing or this program. That’s all the things that we do in human spaceflight.

“So, this one is no more or less important than anything else we’re doing,” he said. “It just happens to be the most important one we’re doing right now.”

Williams acknowledged the Starliner’s rocky road to launch. “I’m not going to say it’s been easy. It’s a little bit of (an) emotional roller coaster.”

But, she added, “we knew we would get here eventually. It’s a solid spacecraft. I don’t think I would really want to be in any other place right now.”