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After nearly a month of setbacks due to a faulty valve, a helium leak, and other obstacles, Boeing’s Starliner is headed for the cosmos.

On Wednesday morning, the autonomous, semireusable space capsule—intended for 10 service missions to the International Space Station (ISS) under a multibillion contract between the aerospace manufacturer and NASA—finally lifted off with humans for the first time.

The long-delayed mission, called the Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT), will take NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the orbital laboratory, where they will conduct an array of tests and evaluations of the spacecraft, its systems, and equipment.

The CFT is expected to be Starliner’s final flight test, demonstrating its capabilities with astronauts on board before NASA moves to certify it for Commercial Crew rotation missions to the ISS. The first of these, Starliner-1, could take place as early as next year.

An initial CFT launch attempt on May 6 was scrubbed, and the mission was postponed several times before finally taking flight. But Wilmore and Williams are now well on their way to the space station, where they are expected to dock Thursday at 12:15 p.m. EDT.

We Have Liftoff

Starliner lifted off from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Wednesday at 10:52 a.m. EDT as teams had planned.

Carrying the capsule into orbit was United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket, which is making its 100th flight. Atlas V, when stacked together with Starliner, stands over 170 feet tall and generated some 1.6 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

The liftoff represented the first time humans have hitched a ride on either Starliner or Atlas V. Williams became the first woman to fly on the maiden voyage of a crewed spacecraft.

After achieving Max Q—the moment the rocket faces the greatest amount of pressure as it climbs through the atmosphere—Starliner successfully separated from Atlas V at suborbit, just under 15 minutes into the mission. From this point on, the astronauts will be on their own.

About half an hour into the mission, Starliner executed a successful insertion burn to place it in stable orbit, from which the capsule will embark on an approximately 24-hour journey to the ISS. The spacecraft will dock with the orbital laboratory’s Harmony module Thursday afternoon, and Williams and Wilmore will disembark to join the crew of NASA’s Expedition 71 for a weeklong stay.

Setting the Stage

Throughout the CFT, the astronauts will work to prepare Starliner for certification.

The performance of equipment such as suits and seats was assessed during prelaunch and ascent. As Starliner rendezvous with the space station, the crew will conduct further testing of life support equipment, manual and automated navigation systems, and thruster performance in the scenario of a manual abort. While capable of flying on its own, the capsule can be commanded manually, and crews have failsafes at their disposal at different points in the flight path.

After assessing Starliner’s autonomous docking capabilities and the opening and closing of its hatch, the astronauts will configure the spacecraft for its stay and move emergency equipment into the ISS. Once they are settled, teams will perform checks of displays, cargo systems, and the vehicle itself.

Williams and Wilmore will also try to prove that the capsule could serve as a “safe haven” in the event of depressurization, fire, or collision with debris impacting the orbital laboratory.

On their return trip, the astronauts will briefly test out Starliner’s manual piloting capabilities. As it approaches Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule will slow from its orbital velocity of 17,500 mph and touch down in one of four locations in the Western U.S., using a combination of parachutes and airbags.

A Calculated Risk

If all goes according to plan, Starliner could launch on its first Commercial Crew rotation mission for NASA in the first half of next year. However, the space agency, Boeing, and ULA are taking a calculated risk with the mission.

A helium leak traced to one of the 28 reaction control system thrusters on Starliner’s service module—which helps maneuver the capsule while in orbit—is responsible for a few of the spacecraft’s recent setbacks. NASA describes the leak as small and stable.

But in a scenario Steve Stich, who manages the Commercial Crew program, described as “a pretty diabolical case, where you would lose two helium manifolds in two separate [thrusters]” that are next to one another, Starliner could be unable to perform a deorbit burn. That’s the maneuver that allows it to slow down from orbital speeds as it reenters the atmosphere.

NASA estimated the likelihood of this occurring at 0.77 percent. As a contingency, it and Boeing developed a modified deorbit burn procedure which they say has been tested in a simulator by Williams and Wilmore.

What It Means

There’s a lot riding on the Starliner CFT’s success.

For Boeing, which rakes in billions every quarter, the more important impact may be reputational rather than financial. The company has come under fire in recent months for its internal safety processes, and successfully flying two humans to the ISS and back could help ease the pressure.

For NASA, Starliner may be instrumental in achieving the agency’s goals.

To date, all eight Commercial Crew rotation missions have been flown by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which like Starliner is a reusable capsule for up to seven passengers. SpaceX signed its own multibillion-dollar contract with the space agency at the same time as Boeing and has since extended it multiple times, without failing to complete a mission.

But NASA wants an alternative to Dragon in the case of a contingency, such as the one that stranded astronaut Frank Rubio on the ISS for nearly a year—and helped him set a U.S. spaceflight record in the process. The space agency made sure to commemorate Rubio’s achievement, but it wants to avoid a similar situation recurring. By keeping two reusable spacecraft in its fleet, it could have one ready to retrieve a crew in case the other fails.

Should Starliner enter NASA’s Commercial Crew rotation, it will alternate six-month missions to the ISS with Dragon.

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The post Godspeed, Starliner: Boeing’s Spacecraft Lifts Off With Astronauts appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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