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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Boeing Is Ready to Launch Starliner, a Rival to SpaceX’s Dragon

The first passenger to fly aboard Boeing’s Starliner will be Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin set to blast off to the International Space Station aboard the capsule on Thursday evening. If she makes the trip safely, NASA astronauts will be cleared for future flights on the new spacecraft.

A successful uncrewed demonstration will make Boeing the second private company allowed to ferry NASA crews to the ISS and will make Starliner a full-fledged competitor to SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule. “We’re excited to fly. Starliner’s a great vehicle. Really, the only way to get the final piece of data you need to fly crew is to go fly in the environment and dock to the ISS,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, at a press conference earlier this month.

Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled to launch at 6:54 pm Eastern time atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. In addition to Rosie, it will be bringing up more than 400 pounds of food, clothes, and sleeping bags. So far, the weather looks good, with forecasters estimating a 70 percent chance that conditions will be go for launch. (If it is delayed until Friday, chances drop to 40 percent.) If all goes as planned on Thursday, the capsule will dock with the space station’s Harmony module at about 7:10 pm Eastern time on Friday. The launch and docking can be viewed live on NASA TV.When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA astronauts lost their regular ride to the ISS. Instead, they launched on Russian Soyuz spacecraft while NASA’s commercial crew program collaborated with private business partners to develop a new generation of spacecraft for transporting astronauts and cargo. In May 2020, two NASA shuttle veterans became the first to ride SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the ISS and—two months later—to return safely home. Since then, SpaceX has regularly carried astronauts to the station. Northrop Grumman and Sierra Space also have contracts with NASA for uncrewed cargo resupply missions. Earlier this year, the company Axiom became the first to send an all-private group of space tourists to the ISS.

Boeing’s new launch, called the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), isn’t its first attempt at an uncrewed demonstration of Starliner. The OFT-1 mission in December 2019 literally fell short, when software glitches caused the capsule to burn through propellant after launch. It went into orbit about 155 miles off the ground, but it never reached the ISS, which orbits much higher up. Boeing addressed that issue and planned another try last August, but during prelaunch preparations engineers discovered problems with the oxidizer valves in Starliner’s propulsion system. The launch was scrubbed. Now those problems have been fixed, and there are no outstanding issues, said Mark Nappi, program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, following Starliner’s successful launch-readiness review on Tuesday.

If all goes well with this week’s test mission, Boeing’s first crewed flight, carrying two or three NASA astronauts, could take off later this year. “We want to make sure this is a vehicle we can fly on the next time,” said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, at the agency’s media briefing on Wednesday. “We need to make sure there isn’t anything we need to update or fix on this spacecraft.”

That will include checking that Rosie the dummy astronaut made it back in one piece and conducting other tests to make sure real people can fly aboard the spacecraft. “Rosie doesn’t breathe, but we want the spacecraft to get back so we can start testing the environmental control system,” NASA astronaut Suni Williams said at the same event on Wednesday.

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NASA will make decisions about the launch date and crew complement this summer, Lueders said.

Since Rosie won’t be doing any piloting, on this demo trip Starliner will use an artificial vision and navigation system called the Vision-based Electro-optical Sensor Tracking Assembly, or VESTA, whose sensors automatically guide the spacecraft as it connects with the ISS. If for any reason the docking doesn’t work properly, crew aboard the ISS can send a retreat or abort command to the spacecraft.

From NASA’s perspective, having contracts with Boeing as well as SpaceX offers advantages, including reducing reliance on cooperation from Russia’s space agency, one of the operators of the ISS and the provider of Soyuz flights. “Redundancy is a high priority, especially with what’s going on with Russia and all the uncertainties in geopolitics. The more options we have of getting to space, with or without the crew, the better. And competition could also end up giving cost-saving and innovation,” says Matthew Weinzierl, an economist at Harvard Business School who researches the commercialization of the space sector.

SpaceX’s reusable space capsules and rockets have saved NASA money, and combined with Boeing, the commercial crew program could save the agency billions of dollars. That’s because NASA’s grand plans, from low Earth orbit to interstellar space, cost more than its total budget, so the agency chose to outsource the transportation while it focuses more on the space exploration side of things. But working with private companies can come with challenges. For example, a 2018 audit of NASA’s Space Launch System, the mega-rocket that will carry the Artemis missions to the moon, held Boeing partly responsible for its high costs and delays. SpaceX has faced public criticism over environmental issues, like its plans for its Boca Chica launch facility expansion and the Starlink satellite constellation’s interference with the night sky.

These two companies in NASA’s commercial crew program make an interesting pair: the older, established Boeing and the young SpaceX. “Boeing, for all the criticism they get about being one of these big, sometimes not-so-fast-moving contractors, has been trying from the beginning of these commercial programs to have an agile attitude toward responding to the competition. You see the evolution of the scrappy startups and the big legacy players as the industry continues to mature,” Weinzierl says.

Lockheed Martin—which is not a program member—has been adapting similarly, Weinzierl argues, by collaborating with other companies on commercial space station concepts that NASA’s investing in for the post-ISS era. (United Launch Alliance, the maker of the rocket that is boosting the Starliner capsule, is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed.) Boeing’s future plans with Starliner involve launching it atop ULA’s new, less expensive, more powerful Vulcan Centaur rocket after the company retires the Atlas V.

But those plans hinge on Starliner acing its demo flight. “We’re really looking forward to the spacecraft coming home,” Williams says. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us before we get to the crewed flight, but we’re chomping at the bit.”

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