Boeing’s Starliner Ready for Third Try to Reach ISS

Boeing’s Starliner Ready for Third Try to Reach ISS

Boeing and NASA are ready for the third attempt to launch the Starliner commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station on an uncrewed test flight. NASA is eager to get Starliner certified so it can have two redundant, dissimilar systems for taking crews to and from the ISS, but Starliner’s debut has been delayed by a series of setbacks. Hopes are high tomorrow’s Orbital Flight Test-2 launch will turn the tide.

Like Space’s Crew Dragon, Starliner is being developed as a public-private partnership. Boeing and NASA signed a $4.2 billion fixed price contract in 2014.

The first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 did not go as planned and it could not dock with the ISS. Boeing decided to try again without a crew and was ready to go last August, but the OFT-2 flight never left the launch pad because of 13 stuck propulsion valves. Because it is a fixed price contract, Boeing must absorb the costs of OFT-2, which was not part of the contract. The company has taken a charge of $595 million in costs against earnings so far.

Tomorrow they will try again. The Starliner capsule is atop its United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL awaiting launch at 6:54 pm ET tomorrow. The weather is 70 percent favorable.

Boeing’s Starliner atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL, May 18, 2022. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

If all goes according to plan, Starliner will dock with the ISS about 24 hours later. How long it will remain there is partially dependent on the weather at its landing site in White Sands, NM, but NASA is planning 4-5 days. Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that splashes down in the water, Starliner lands on terra firma.

OFT-2 is a test flight leading to a Crew Flight Test (CFT) and then the first operational launch, Starliner-1, after NASA certifies the vehicle as safe for NASA astronauts.

At a pre-launch “leadership” briefing today, three NASA astronauts who have been assigned to CFT or Starliner-1 expressed confidence the vehicle is ready to go.

“We wouldn’t be here right now if we weren’t confident,” Butch Wilmore said. “This spacecraft is ready. The teams are ready. Boeing is ready. ULA is ready.  The mission ops folks that will control the spacecraft in space are ready. And we’re excited.”

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, Mike Fincke and Suni Williams, on the right in blue flight suits, participate in May 18, 2022 OFT-2 leadership briefing. Also shown L-R are Jasmine Hopkins, NASA communications; NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana; Kennedy Space Center Director Janet Petro; and NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

NASA assigned crews to CFT and Starliner-1 years ago, but as those flights were delayed, some were reassigned to Crew Dragon missions. At the briefing today with Wilmore were Mike Fincke, both previously assigned to CFT, and Sunita Williams, Starliner-1 commander.

Somewhat surprisingly, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders said today that decisions are pending on who will fly the missions. The astronauts described themselves as a “cadre” of Starliner astronauts who might be assigned to one of those missions, or not.

A fourth NASA astronaut, Jeanette Epps, was assigned to Starliner-1, but was not at the briefing. Last October, two of the astronauts assigned to CFT or Starliner-1, Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, were reassigned to Crew Dragon missions. At the time, Epps was said to be cross-training on both spacecraft. Today a NASA spokesperson told that is still the case. Epps was supposed to launch to ISS on a Soyuz mission in 2018, but NASA withdrew her for reasons that have never been explained. Epps has said she was not told why either. She was to be the first African-American woman on a long-duration ISS mission, a distinction that now goes to Jessica Watkins, a member of Crew-4 who launched last month.

Initially, Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who went to work for Boeing, was assigned to command CFT, but he withdrew in 2020.

Lueders said today only NASA astronauts are being considered, even if she couldn’t say which ones. She explained the priority is assigning crews for the regular “increment” missions that launch every six months or so. “It’s important to get the right timing and understand exactly when the Crew Flight Test is going to show up because the [astronaut] crew office has to assign for increment missions in the spring, increment missions in the fall. We have potentially two vehicles that we’re getting ready to fly in that increment mission in the fall, which includes a Starliner and a SpaceX flight. So it’s just a big challenge for making sure we’ve got the right crews on the right vehicles and then getting in the right training flows for those different vehicles.”

In any case, the first step is OFT-2. No humans are aboard, but an instrumented mannequin, Rosie the Rocketeer, will be in the commander’s seat.

NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 6:00 pm ET tomorrow, May 19, with a post-launch news conference scheduled for 9:00 pm ET. NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and docking starts at 3:30 pm ET on Friday, with docking expected at 7:10 pm ET.

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