Space

Boeing Starliner’s First Crewed Launch Is Back On

NASA astronauts Mission Commander Butch Wilmore and Pilot Suni Williams are back in Florida ahead of the scheduled Saturday Starliner launch.
NASA astronauts Mission Commander Butch Wilmore and Pilot Suni Williams are back in Florida ahead of the scheduled Saturday Starliner launch. Photo by NASA

After spending most of May delaying the first crewed test flight of Boeing’s beleaguered Starliner space capsule, NASA and Boeing officials have announced the flight is slated to go up “as soon as June 1,” i.e. at 11:25 p.m. CT, Saturday.

And it is looking increasingly likely that the launch will actually occur this time, especially since NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, the mission commander, and Suni Williams, the pilot, finally returned to Florida on Tuesday from Houston.

However, we won’t exactly be surprised if this launch is once again delayed. At this point, Boeing is running years behind schedule.

Back in 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to build a commercial vehicle to tote astronauts to and from the International Space Station in the wake of the space shuttle’s 2011 retirement, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion. Both companies were supposed to have crewed flights up and running by 2017, and neither hit that deadline.

Boeing’s 2019 uncrewed launch was curtailed when a software issue blocked the spacecraft from docking with the ISS, although this was followed by a successful unmanned flight to prove it was safe for astronauts in 2022. (SpaceX launched its first crewed flight in August 2020.)
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Boeing’s Starliner, seen here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Base after the scrubbed May 6 launch, is scheduled for its first crewed test flight on Saturday.
Photo by NASA
Last summer, Starliner was finally scheduled for its first launch with astronauts aboard, but two months before the mission it was pushed back a year after officials discovered problems with Starliner’s parachutes and that Boeing had used flammable tape in the capsule’s cockpit.

Earlier this month, NASA and Boeing got tantalizingly close to sending up this crucial final test flight. On May 6, Wilmore and Williams were already tucked into the capsule stacked atop a ULA Atlas V rocket and just two hours from launch when the mission was scrubbed due to a faulty valve. Both astronauts were sent back to Houston’s Johnson Space Center shortly afterward, and have remained there until now, despite NASA’s repeated scheduling and rescheduling of the launch window.

Although NASA and Boeing engineers soon addressed the issue that triggered the first launch cancellation, they discovered a helium leak and design issues with the ship’s propulsion system.

After running a detailed analysis of the helium leak over the past few weeks, engineers ultimately concluded that the leak was “small and stable” and unlikely to impact Starliner’s planned week-long sojourn with the International Space Station.

By then engineers had also discovered technical failures on the spacecraft’s propulsion system that could prevent Starliner from conducting the necessary de-orbit burn to bring the craft back to Earth, triggering more delays.

“It has been important that we take our time to understand all the complexities of each issue,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, explained, according to a release. “We will launch Butch and Suni on this test mission after the entire community has reviewed the teams’ progress and flight rationale at the upcoming Delta Agency Flight Test Readiness Review.”

NASA held that flight review on Wednesday and cleared Starliner for launch following this detailed analysis of the spacecraft, according to the release.

Now all that’s left to do is to send Williams and Wilmore up, and that very well could happen this Saturday.

As if to underscore just how far behind Boeing is, SpaceX is set for an uncrewed launch that will take Starlink satellites to space on Friday evening from the same site (Cape Canaveral Space Force Station), complete with a plan for the Falcon 9 rocket to land on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

On top of that, next week SpaceX plans to conduct the fourth test flight of Starship and the Super Heavy, the enormous rocket that NASA is counting on to get boots on Mars by the 2030s.

Pending Federal Aviation Administration approval, on June 5, the capsule and rocket will lift off from SpaceX’s Starbase launchpad on the lip of the South Texas Coast. The goal will be a “soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico” for the Super Heavy and “controlled entry” for Starship, according to a SpaceX statement issued ahead of the launch.

If they pull this one off, it will represent a significant step forward in making a mission to Mars a reality. Meanwhile, fingers crossed that Boeing can manage to get it’s crewed spacecraft through this final flight test, the one SpaceX already pulled off back in 2020.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray