Thursday, July 25, 2024

Astronauts are about to launch for the first time

After years of delays, Boeing is finally set to send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on its Starliner spacecraft.

The capsule is scheduled to lift off atop an Atlas V rocket at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Monday at 10:34 p.m. ET. Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams will pilot the Starliner on its inaugural crew flight — a crucial final test before NASA approves Boeing to conduct routine flights to the space station.

The stakes are high. This is Boeing’s first manned launch of its spacecraft and comes after years of delays, technical setbacks and significant budget overruns. If successful, the flight would enable Boeing to challenge the dominance of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which will launch NASA astronauts from orbit starting in 2020.

Both companies’ spacecraft were developed under NASA’s Commercial Group program, which was established after its space shuttle mission retired in 2011. Objective: To promote and finance the development of new commercially developed vehicles capable of flying into low Earth orbit.

At a preview conference last week, Wilmore said safety was paramount, and that previous Starliner launch attempts — both crewed and crewed — had been delayed because the capsule wasn’t ready until now.

“Why do we think it’s as safe as possible? If we weren’t we wouldn’t be standing here,” Wilmore told reporters.

However, there are inherent risks with any new spacecraft or rocket.

“Do we expect it to go well? This is the first human flight of the spacecraft,” Wilmore said. “I’m sure we’ll figure things out. That’s why we do this. It was a test flight.

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NASA’s veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams will be the first to fly aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.Robert Markowitz/NASA

The plan is for the astronauts to rendezvous with the space station the next day Spend a week there before returning to Earth and touch down on Starliner’s primary landing pad at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.

Although NASA astronauts have flown aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for years, the agency doesn’t want to trust one company, said Makenna Young, a fellow in the Aerospace Defense Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Having that second option is really important because it adds redundancy and resilience,” Young said. “In space systems, there are always redundancies, because if something goes wrong, you have to make sure you have backups.”

Starliner lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in 2022.Frank Michaux/NASA

Boeing’s journey to this first crewed flight has been tumultuous. In 2019, Starliner’s uncommissioned launch was cut short after software glitches prevented the capsule from attempting to dock with the space station. Subsequent fuel valve problems caused several delays before Boeing successfully demonstrated that the Starliner could dock at the ISS and return to Earth in 2022.

Earlier this year, Boeing’s aviation division came under fire following an explosion in the middle of one of its 737 Max 9 planes. That major crash has increased scrutiny of the entire company, and it could raise the stakes for the upcoming Starliner flight, Young said.

“A successful launch can be an incredibly important reminder [Boeing’s] Skills,” she said. “They can show that they are a reliable operator who can complete difficult tasks and continue to innovate.”

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Boeing engineers test the Starliner’s seat design in Mesa, Ariz.Boeing

Young added that the challenges Boeing faced in getting the Starliner to this stage show how difficult human spaceflight can be.

“I think we forget because we’ve been doing it for decades, but space is still a very difficult environment,” he said. “It’s very difficult to actually get off the ground successfully.”

Williams said he and Willmore have faith in the Starliner project and their work.

“We feel very safe and comfortable flying this spacecraft,” Williams told reporters earlier this week. “This is where we need to be.”

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