On Thursday, Boeing will have a second chance at a do-over for the space taxi it has built for NASA.
The Starliner capsule will take astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but first it has to complete a test flight without astronauts to verify that its systems all work properly. Its two previous attempts to carry out that preparatory journey — the first in December 2019 and the second in August 2021 — were both marred by serious technical problems. The setbacks have also cost Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars.
But now, finally, Starliner is again at the launching pad. Here’s what you need to know about its flight.
How and when can I watch the Starliner launch?
Liftoff is scheduled for 6:54 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. NASA Television will start streaming coverage of the launch at 6 p.m.
Weather forecasters give an 80 percent chance of conditions favorable for launch. There is a backup launch window on Friday at 6:32 p.m., but the weather might be less promising, at only 30 percent, because of expected thunderstorms in the area.
Why has Starliner had so much trouble?
Boeing conducted an uncrewed test flight of Starliner in December 2019. The problems started almost as soon as it reached orbit.
A software error caused the Starliner’s clock to be set to the wrong time. That caused the onboard computer to try to move the spacecraft to where it thought the vessel should be. The firing of the thrusters used up much of the propellant, and plans for Starliner to dock at the space station were called off.
While troubleshooting that problem, Boeing engineers discovered a second flaw that would have caused the wrong thrusters to fire as the capsule prepared for re-entry, potentially leading to the destruction of the spacecraft. They fixed that software flaw while Starliner orbited the Earth, and the capsule landed safely at White Sands, N.M.
Those problems put a hold on what would have been the next step: a demonstration flight with astronauts aboard. NASA told Boeing that it needed to repeat the uncrewed test flight, at Boeing’s cost.
Boeing spent more than a year revamping and retesting the software, and in August last year, Starliner was back at the launching pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, on top of a second Atlas 5 rocket.
The countdown started, but had to be halted. Flight managers discovered that 13 valves in Starliner’s propulsion system had failed to open.
Boeing then spent about eight months investigating the corrosion that had caused the valves to stick shut. Boeing swapped out the service module — the piece of Starliner below the capsule that houses the propulsion system — with one that had been planned for the next mission.
Now, it’s ready for that second do-over.
Does NASA really need Starliner?
After the space shuttles were retired, the United States had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rockets for trips to and from the International Space Station. NASA then hired two companies to take astronauts to and from the station: SpaceX and Boeing. At the time of Boeing’s test flight in 2019, it seemed that Starliner would beat out SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for the first mission with astronauts.
But with problems grounding Starliner, SpaceX has since launched seven Crew Dragon missions with astronauts. Five were for NASA. Two others carried private citizens to orbit.
SpaceX’s missions also appear to be significantly less expensive than Boeing’s. When NASA announced the contracts in 2014, Boeing was set to receive $4.2 billion while SpaceX was to receive $2.6 billion. (The space agency did not release details of the contracts, making it difficult to exactly compare the cost of a seat on Starliner with one on Crew Dragon. In 2019, the NASA inspector general estimated that each seat on a Crew Dragon costs $55 million, while a seat on Starliner costs $90 million.)
Still, NASA officials say they are committed to Starliner, and that having two systems spurs competition and innovation and provides a backup if something goes wrong.
The need for such a backup became evident after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. While Russian and American astronauts continue to collaborate peaceably in orbit and on trips home from the space station, NASA is unlikely to want to find itself again relying on Russia for trips to and from space.
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