Keeping an eye on threatening weather, engineers readied a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket for blastoff Tuesday on a make-or-break flight to boost Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule into orbit for an unpiloted trip to the International Space Station. The launching comes 18 months after Starliner software errors derailed a 2019 test flight.
Boeing is counting on the test flight to finally clear the way for piloted missions that will eventually ferry astronauts to and from the station under a $4.2 billion commercial crew contract with NASA.
The countdown began at 2 a.m. ET, ticking toward liftoff from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 1:20 p.m. ET. The launch was initially planned for last Friday, but NASA ordered a delay while Russian space station engineers resolved problems with a newly arrived laboratory module.
If the weather cooperates for an on-time launch — and forecasters predicted a 50-50 chance —- the Atlas 5’s Centaur second stage will release the Starliner to fly on its own about 15 minutes after liftoff. Sixteen minutes after that, the capsule’s main engine is expected to fire for 40 seconds, putting the spacecraft into its initial orbit.
During the Starliner program’s maiden flight in December 2019, a software error caused the ship’s flight computer to mistime the critical orbit insertion, or OI, burn. A communications glitch compounded the problem, propellant was wasted and NASA ultimately was forced to rule out an attempt to rendezvous with the space station.
Since then, Boeing implemented dozens of upgrades and modifications and opted to launch a second unpiloted test flight this week to prove the Starliner is ready to begin carrying astronauts to and from the lab complex.
“It’s important not only for Boeing, but also for our customer to demonstrate that we can do it safely and successfully,” said former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, a senior manager in Boeing’s commercial crew program. “I think you would be very hard-pressed to find a flight leading to a human spaceflight that has been so thoroughly vetted as this one.”
Assuming a successful launch, the Starliner will execute a carefully scripted sequence of thruster firings to chase down the space station, moving in for an automated docking at the lab’s forward port Wednesday at 1:37 p.m. ET. Undocking is planned for next Monday, with landing near White Sands, New Mexico, expected around 1:13 p.m. ET.
Depending on lessons learned, Boeing and NASA could be ready to launch three astronauts aboard a different Starliner capsule by the end of this year or early next year. That will mark a major milestone in NASA’s post-shuttle drive to end reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
SpaceX, under a $2.6 billion NASA contract, launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft on a successful unpiloted test flight in 2019 and a piloted test flight last year. Since then, the California rocket builder has launched two operational flights to the space station carrying two long-duration crews to the outpost.
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