If the capsule arrives at the International Space Station on Friday and all goes well, two or three NASA test pilots could close by the end of this year. (Photo: 123RF)
CAPE CANAVERAL – The Boeing Co.’s crew capsule flew into orbit Thursday on a repeat test flight without astronauts, after years on Earth with flaws that could have wiped out the spacecraft.
Only a test dummy was on board. If the capsule arrives at the International Space Station on Friday and all goes well, two or three NASA test pilots could connect by the end of this year or early next year for the first flight in the company’s crew.
This is Boeing’s third attempt at a high-risk flight demonstration. At least this time, the Starliner spacecraft reached the correct orbit, quickly targeting the space station despite a pair of thrusters failing. Looms on the horizon rendezvous and docking.
“It’s another great day for us,” said Boeing Vice President and Commercial Crew Program Director Mark Naby. We may have a few sleepless nights to complete the rest of the job, but today we feel really good.”
The Starliner spacecraft’s first test flight in 2019 encountered software errors so severe that the capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and had to skip the space station. The spacecraft was nearly destroyed, with critical ground controllers quickly aborting.
After dozens of security fixes, Boeing returned a different capsule to the launch pad last summer. Damaged valves interrupted the countdown, which led to another round of repairs.
The Endless Flight Pilot Program cost Boeing about US$600 million.
“We won’t be flying (crews) unless we feel we’ve reduced the risks,” said Kathy Luders, NASA chief of space operations.
Boeing is looking to redeem itself as it tries to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other contracted space transportation service. Founded by Elon Musk, this company has transported astronauts to and from the space station for two years and delivered cargo for an entire decade.
Keen to reduce its costly dependence on Russia for crew transportation, NASA contracted Boeing and SpaceX to send astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ended in 2011. Why it’s so important that Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft succeed, says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson .
“In that case, we still want to have an alternative,” Nelson told The Associated Press hours before takeoff.
Differing in appearance, but similar in function to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, the fully automated Boeing capsule will attempt to dock with the space station on its own. Station astronauts will be on hand to fly the capsule with a remote control, if needed.
Officials said the capsule still has ten thrusters that are good for major movements, including de-orbiting at the end of the flight. The malfunctioning thrusters actually fired briefly before prematurely failing one by one; A backup system has been operated to put the spacecraft into the correct orbit.
“We do that step every time, and now we have to get through this spacecraft and learn a few things,” Luders told reporters after liftoff.
The Starliner spacecraft will spend about five days at the space station before landing in the New Mexico desert next Wednesday.
NASA is not yet finished with the astronauts who will be part of the first Starliner crew. The program was so behind schedule that the first three astronauts dropped out. The leading competitors gathered in Cape Canaveral for the evening launch of the Starliner rocket aboard the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.
“We’re thrilled that the next person is us,” said astronaut Butch Willmore.
The capsule carries spacewalking supplies and equipment for the station’s seven residents. US spacewalks have been suspended since an astronaut’s helmet reached water in March. NASA is sending additional absorbent pads for use in helmets, in case an emergency spacewalk is needed while the investigation continues.
Boeing also carries memorabilia from historically black colleges and universities, as well as tree seeds similar to those taken by Apollo astronauts to the moon that have become lunar trees here on Earth.
“Proud thinker. Tv fanatic. Communicator. Evil student. Food junkie. Passionate coffee geek. Award-winning alcohol advocate.”