CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Boeing’s crew capsule rocketed into orbit Thursday on a repeat test flight without astronauts, after years of being grounded by flaws that could have doomed the spacecraft.
Only a test dummy was aboard. If the capsule reaches the International Space Station on Friday and everything else goes well, two or three NASA test pilots could strap in by the end of this year or early next for the company’s first crew flight.
This is Boeing’s third attempt at high-stakes flight demonstration.
Starliner was able to reach the correct orbit and quickly chased the space station. The rendezvous and docking were still a distant dream.
Starliner’s first test flight in 2019 was stricken by software errors so severe that the capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and had to skip the space station. Ground controllers had to stop the spacecraft from being destroyed.
After dozens of safety fixes, Boeing returned a different capsule to the launch pad last summer. The countdown was halted by corroded valves, which required another round of repairs.
The drawn-out test flight program has cost Boeing approximately $600 million.
“We’re not going to fly (crews) unless we feel like we’ve bought down the risk,” NASA space operations chief Kathy Lueders stressed on the eve of liftoff.
Boeing is seeking redemption as it attempts to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other contracted taxi service. Elon Musk’s firm has flown astronauts to the station twice a year and delivered cargo for over ten years.
In an effort to decrease its dependence on Russia for crew transport, NASA contracted Boeing and SpaceX in order to send astronauts to space station. This was after the end of the shuttle program. 2011. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated that it is crucial for Boeing’s Starliner’s success.
“We always, in this case, want to have a backup,” Nelson told The Associated Press hours before liftoff.
Different in looks but similar in function to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Boeing’s fully automated capsule will attempt to dock at the space station on its own. If necessary, astronauts from the station will be able to control the capsule remotely.
Starliner will spend close to a week at the space station before aiming for a touchdown in the New Mexico desert.
NASA is yet to decide which astronauts will join the Starliner first crew. The program is so far behind that the original three have stepped aside. For the Starliner evening launch, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral.
“We’re thrilled for this because the next one is us,” said astronaut Butch Wilmore.
Besides Rosie the Rocketeer — a space-age version of World War II’s Rosie the Riveter — the capsule is carrying groceries and spacewalking gear for the seven station residents. Since March, when an astronaut’s helmet became waterlogged in the United States, U.S. spacewalks are on hold. NASA has sent extra absorbent pads to NASA’s helmets in the event of an emergency.
Boeing also is flying mementos from historically black colleges and universities and tree seeds similar to those Apollo astronauts took to the moon that became so-called moon trees here on Earth.
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