Boeing's Starliner is set to make its historic astronaut launch after years of delays

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After years of delays and dizzying setbacks during test flights, Boeing's Starliner space shuttle is finally set to launch its inaugural crew.

The mission is on track to lift off from Florida as soon as May 6, carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore. International Space StationThe blockade would mark a historic and long-awaited victory for the Starliner program.

“Design and development is hard — especially a human space vehicle,” Mark Nappi, Boeing's vice president and Starliner program manager, said during a news conference Thursday. “There's been a lot of amazing things along the way that we've had to overcome. … It's definitely made the team stronger. I'm very proud of how they've overcome every challenge we've faced and gotten us to this point.

Boeing and NASA officials decided Thursday to move forward with the launch attempt within two weeks. However, Ken Powersachs, NASA's associate administrator Space Operations Mission DirectorateHe noted that May 6 is “not a magical date”.

“We'll start when we're ready,” he said.

If successful, the Starliner will dock SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft Fully staffing the orbiting outpost with astronauts from NASA and its partner space agencies on regular missions to the space station.

Such a scenario – where both Crew Dragon and Starliner would continue to fly – is one that the US space agency has long awaited.

“This is history in the making,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said of the upcoming Starliner mission on March 22. News conference. “We are now in the golden age of space exploration.”

SpaceX and Boeing have developed their respective vehicles under NASA Business team plan, in partnership with private industry contractors. From the beginning, the space agency aimed to have both entities operating simultaneously. Each of the Crew Dragon and Starliner shuttles will act as a backup to the other, giving astronauts the option of continuing to fly even if technical problems or other setbacks cause one of the shuttles to land.

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NASA didn't initially envision, however, that SpaceX's Crew Dragon would run on its own for nearly four years before Boeing's Starliner achieved its first crewed test flight.

In the early days of the program, it provided SpaceX and Boeing contracts In 2014, NASA favored Boeing — a close ally since the mid-20th century — over SpaceX, the federal agency said. Relatively young and capricious upstart.

View from Boeing, SpaceX and NASA

As recently as 2016, NASA has been planning its schedule The Starliner crew defeats the Dragon on the launch pad.

But the rivalry between Boeing and SpaceX took a distinct turn by 2020. Missteps are intriguing A Starliner test flight the year before, NASA and Boeing officials are scrambling to figure out what went wrong. Starliner did not dock with the space station on that mission due to software problems, including a problem with the spacecraft's internal clock. Stop at 11 am.

Meanwhile, SpaceX made history in May 2020 with the launch of its Demo-2 test flight, carrying astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a two-month mission to the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon flies regular missions carrying NASA astronauts and paying customers and tourists. The spacecraft has now sent 13 crewed missions into orbit.

Boeing, however, has spent years grappling with a number of challenges, including a list of problems discovered during the 2022 space shuttle. Second idle test flight. Boeing's commercial aircraft division also faced a series of scandals — including 737 maximum crisis And recent quality control issues were highlighted after a door plug exploded Alaska Airlines flight In January – it damaged the company's brand.

At one point in 2020, NASA officials admitted that more scrutiny was directed toward SpaceX and its unorthodox routes, while problems with Boeing's Starliner slipped through the cracks.

“Maybe there aren't as many people embedded in that process as we should be,” Steve Stich, NASA's Commercial Crew Program Manager, said at a July 2020 news conference.

“When one provider (SpaceX) has a newer approach than another, it's natural for a man to spend more time on that new approach, and we didn't take the time we needed to with (Boeing's) traditional approach.”

Boeing's space division operates separately from its commercial aircraft group, and officials at NASA and the U.S. space agency routinely maintain that distinction.

NASA officials have made it clear that they are working more closely with Boeing than ever before, with personnel on the ground at Boeing facilities overseeing some of the fixes the company has made ahead of the upcoming Starliner flight.

“It's an important capability for NASA. We signed up to do this, and we're going to do it and succeed,” Nubby said Thursday. “I don't think what's important to Boeing is what I think is important to this program.”

Still, Boeing and NASA have a long list of problems to solve.

For example, during the last flight test in 2022, engineers found that the suspension lines in the Starliner's parachute had a lower threshold for failure than initially expected.

NASA and Boeing engineers fixed that problem earlier this year, but Stich said Thursday that parachutes will be top of mind as they work through some last-minute checkouts before liftoff.

Some of the tape used to secure the wiring harnesses was found to be flammable, and Boeing had to remove and replace about a mile worth of the material, Nappi says.

Corrosion problems may require redesign of some valves on the Boeing shuttle. That upgrade, however, isn't expected until the second crew flight, which is planned for 2025.

On the May launch crew, Nappi said in March, Boeing will use a “perfectly acceptable mitigation” that prevents valves from sticking.

Starliner and Defense

Despite the long road to the launch pad, the two men at the center of Starliner's first crew mission — Williams and Wilmore, two longtime NASA astronauts — said they were as optimistic as ever when they arrived at the launch pad.

“The general public thinks it's easy, but it's not — it's really hard,” Wilmore said after arriving at the Starliner's launch site in Florida on Thursday. “We wouldn't be here if we weren't ready. We are ready. The spacecraft is ready, the crews are ready.

Wilmore noted March news conference He did not expect the Starliner spacecraft to enter any “failure modes.”

“But if something happens — because we're all human, we can't make things right — if something happens, we have multiple fallback methods,” he said. News conferenceSpecifying methods that give astronauts the ability to take more manual control over the spacecraft should something not go as planned.

Williams said during a March news event, “We wouldn't be sitting here if we didn't feel — and tell our families what we feel — confidence in this spacecraft and our abilities to control it.”

He added at a news conference Thursday in Florida, “I have every confidence not only in our capabilities and the capabilities of the spacecraft, but also in our mission control team, who are ready for the challenge.”

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