Starliner CFT Lifts Off!

Starliner CFT Lifts Off!

It took three tries, but Boeing’s Starliner Crew Flight Test is now in orbit on its way to the International Space Station. NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will put the spacecraft through its paces over the next day before docking at the ISS tomorrow at 12:15 pm ET. They’ll undock about eight days later and return to Earth, landing in New Mexico.

Butch and Suni lifted off at 10:52 am ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Their  reusable Starliner capsule, one of two built by Boeing, is named Calypso in honor of Jacques Cousteau’s voyages of exploration on a ship by that name.

The launch has been a long time coming. Boeing and SpaceX were both awarded NASA contracts in 2014 to develop “commercial crew” space transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon completed its crewed test flight in 2020 and now routinely takes both NASA astronauts and private passengers to Earth orbit.

Boeing is almost exactly four years behind. SpaceX’s version of this test flight, Demo-2, lifted off on May 30, 2020.

Starliner encountered one problem after another. The first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 uncovered serious defects. Boeing decided to refly the uncrewed test before putting people on board. It was two-and-a-half years before that second flight, OFT-2, successfully took place in May 2022. Boeing and NASA were optimistic about getting this mission, CFT, off the ground in early 2023, but more issues emerged. Last July the launch was indefinitely delayed when Boeing discovered tape wrapped around wiring harnesses inside the spacecraft was flammable and soft link fabric sections of the parachutes were insufficiently strong.

They were finally ready to go on May 6, but the launch was scrubbed about 2 hours before liftoff due to a faulty valve in the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage. The rocket had to be returned to ULA’s Vertical Assembly Facility to replace the valve. While there, Boeing detected two issues with the Starliner spacecraft itself — a helium leak in one of Starliner’s Reaction Control System thrusters and a “design vulnerability” in ensuring there are three redundant methods for returning Starliner to Earth.

After extensive analysis, NASA and Boeing decided Starliner is safe to fly as is although changes may be made for future flights. They rescheduled the launch for June 1, but that launch was scrubbed 3 minutes and 50 seconds before liftoff because of a power supply problem with a computer system called the automated ground launch sequencer (GLS) that controls the countdown in the last four minutes.

ULA fixed that problem and today the launch went off without a hitch.

During a post-launch news conference, Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who is now NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations, expressed what he and the NASA, Boeing and ULA teams clearly felt — “good things are worth waiting for and I hope you agree that today’s launch was definitely worth waiting for.”

NASA, Boeing and ULA officials at a post-launch news conference at Kennedy Space Center, June 5, 2024. L-R: Antonia Jaramillo, NASA Communications; Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator; Ken Bowersox, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations; Steve Stich, NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager; Joel Montalbano, NASA Deputy Administrator for Space Operations; Mark Nappi, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for Commercial Crew; and Tory Bruno, President and CEO, United Launch Alliance. Screengrab.

The Atlas V-Centaur rocket puts Starliner onto a suborbital trajectory and Starliner’s own engines fire 31 minutes after launch to put the spacecraft into orbit. All of that went perfectly today.

This is ULA’s first launch of astronauts. ULA was established in 2006 and has only launched satellites until now. An earlier version of Atlas was used for the Mercury-Atlas flights in the early 1960s that included John Glenn’s historic mission as the first American to orbit the Earth, but since then the only U.S. rockets that have sent people into orbit are Titan (for the Gemini program), Saturn (for Apollo), the Space Shuttle, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 (for Crew Dragon).

ULA President Tory Bruno said at the news conference “this is our first time and the bird [rocket] made us work for it a little bit.” After 450 personal launches “I was pretty sure I’d seen everything, but I have to tell you there is absolutely nothing like this and we are very, very proud to join this human spaceflight community.”

NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams wave goodbye to well wishers as they leave crew quarters enroute to the launch pad for the third attempt to launch the Starliner Crew Flight Test, June 5, 2024. This time was the charm and they lifted off at 10:52 am ET. Photo credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Starliner is designed to operate autonomously and the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) docked with the ISS with no one aboard. However, manual options are available when a crew is aboard and Butch and Suni will test them during the trip to the ISS.

This is a test flight and Butch and Suni are experienced Navy test pilots. They also are experienced NASA astronauts. This is the third trip to space for both of them and both had extended missions on the ISS. Butch was there for 167 days in 2014. Suni had two expeditions on ISS: 195 days in 2006-2007 and 127 days in 2012.

Mark Nappi, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for Commercial Crew, joked that people tell him he should smile more and today “I’m smiling.” But he also pointed out that launch is just the beginning of the mission. Starliner still has to dock, undock, and land. All along the way, “we’ll learn.”

The first landing opportunity is June 14 at 9:38 am ET, but NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich stressed today many factors will play into when they come home, including weather.

Starliner is the first U.S. space capsule to land on terra firma rather than in the water.  The Space Shuttle did, but it was not a capsule. The landing is cushioned by airbags.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft at White Sands Space Harbor, NM after completing the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission, May 25, 2022. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Starliner’s two prime landing sites are at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, but it also can land at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Edwards Air Force Base, CA, and Willcox Playa, AZ.

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