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The long, thorny history of Boeing’s Starliner spaceship

If someone had told NASA ten years ago that SpaceX would build a new ride that would allow astronauts to reach the International Space Station before Boeing room The agency might have laughed that person out of the room.

NASA hired both companies to make spaceships in 2014. SpaceX, the inexperienced company, got its Crew Dragon to the finish line first and has brought fifty people to orbit since 2020. Meanwhile, Boeing has continued to toil with Starlinerinvolving a real game of Whac-A-Mole to tackle one technical problem after another, most recently a small helium leak in the service module.

Why the old company struggled with the spacecraft and suffered years of delays is not so clear. The answers from Boeing leaders were sometimes stunningly opaque.

“There are a number of things that we had to overcome along the way that we had to overcome, so I can’t pick just one that I would point to,” said Mark Nappi, the company’s program manager for Starliner. “This is a typical design and development type program, and we have done well to get to this point.”

But quickly Boeing gets his chance at a redemption story. For the first time, astronauts will fly to orbit around the Earth in the spaceship. Test pilots Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams, who each spent six months in space, will take Starliner to the station, a laboratory about 250 miles above Earth.

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The launch atop an Atlas V rocket is scheduled for June 1 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Barring bad weather or other last-minute problems, the spaceship could already take off 12:25 PM ET Saturday.

‘If something happens to Dragon, God forbid, we will ask the Russians for lifts again. I’m not sure the American public is into that.”

The crew will spend about a week on the station checking all spacecraft systems before climbing back in for the ride home. Instead of plopping the astronauts in the ocean like SpaceX does, Boeing will take them home to the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. A system of parachutes and airbags will cushion the capsule’s desert landing.

While a harrowing incident involving a panel being blown out of a plane recently tarnished the Boeing name, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was confident the problems plaguing the company’s aircraft division are not a concern for this spacecraft , which is overseen by the company’s separate defense and aerospace division. division.

“This is a clean spaceship and ready to launch,” he said.

Starliner lands in the New Mexico desert

The Starliner spaceship successfully landed in a New Mexico desert during an unmanned test.
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Despite Starliner’s previous challenges, Wilmore and Williams have said they are unfazed by the series of mishaps and setbacks.

“If we could go back just three years and talk about the capabilities of the spacecraft, what it was then, as it was envisioned, and where it is now, after these discoveries and putting all those problems right that we have found, then it really makes great leaps forward,” Wilmore told Mashable during a press conference earlier this month.

Williams added that they have discussed the headlines in question with their families.

“I think they are happy and proud that we were part of the process to resolve all this,” she said.

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NASA crew prepares for Starliner launch

NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams will be the first people to fly in the Boeing Starliner.
Credit: Paul Hennessy/Anadolu via Getty Images

Why NASA Outsourced Spacecraft Construction

Ten years ago, NASA signed a billionaire Elon Musk‘s relatively new rocket company and Boeing to create a commercial space taxi market. The agency paid SpaceX just $2.6 billion and the latter $4.2 billion.

At the time, it made sense to award Boeing a bigger contract: the company had already started building a spacecraft and had experience working with NASA dating all the way back to Project Mercury in the late 1950s. These close ties were reiterated just a month ago by Dana Weigel, program manager of NASA’s International Space Station, who reminded reporters of Boeing’s role in the space station itself.

“This is not the only Boeing-built spacecraft we will operate from Houston mission control,” she said. “We are looking forward to (Starliner), but we are also very proud to fly the ISS, the longest continuously operational spacecraft in human history.”

Starliner rides atop an Atlas V rocket

Starliner will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Credit: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images

When the agency retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA was forced to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan to get crews into space. That might have been fine, but the United States paid more for it $86 million per ride.

“We haven’t had the friendliest of relations with Russia, especially recently, and the head of their space agency said, ‘Well, NASA can go buy themselves a big trampoline,’” said Sven Bilén, professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State. told Mashable. “As an American, it was a shame to me that we couldn’t go into space with our own spacecraft.”

Russia’s need to get Americans to space ended when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed all tests for certification, but NASA never intended to have all its eggs in Musk’s basket. After the Columbia disaster, it took 2.5 years for the United States to return to space travel. The agency wanted at least two suppliers, so there’s always a backup if the Federal Aviation Administration were to ground one for some reason. Their position on this issue remains even as the space station approaches retirement in 2031.

Butch Wilmore practices for the launch of Starliner

Barry “Butch” Wilmore is the commander of the first crewed flight for the Starliner spacecraft.
Credit: NASA

The need for a Plan B became clear last year when a leak on the station forced NASA to consider the possibility of loading all the astronauts onto one SpaceX spaceship to get home, should an emergency evacuation be necessary.

“If something happens to Dragon, God forbid, we will ask the Russians for rides again,” Bilén said. “I’m not sure the American public is into that.”

Starliner technical problems and delays

Starliner’s first flight with astronauts was actually scheduled for a launch seven years ago. About two years later, in December 2019, Boeing was ready to send an empty Starliner to the station for an unmanned maiden voyage. However, the spaceship never reached its destination due to a software glitch that caused it to turn on the wrong job. Starliner returned to Earth without completing its mission.

Suni Williams prepares for the launch of Starliner

Sunita “Suni” Williams, an astronaut and test pilot, will fly Starliner for the first time.
Credit: NASA

After a seven-month investigation, NASA ordered 80 corrective actions for Boeing before it could fly the ship again. Meanwhile, SpaceX completed the crewed test that Boeing will conduct no earlier than June 1.

The problems only continued. Boeing wanted to conduct another unmanned test flight and was preparing for a 2021 launch when engineers discovered more than a dozen corroded valves in the propulsion system. By replacing these parts, the iteration was pushed back to May 2022.

Starliner’s second spaceflight was free of these major problems and the ship made it to the space station and back, but the string of hardware problems was not over. Just before Boeing was about to test the spacecraft with astronauts, more issues emerged during the 2023 reviews, causing even more delays, including an additional drop test for a new parachute system. The team also replaced about a mile of tape covering the internal wiring in the spacecraft, which was considered flammable, Nappi said.

NASA to launch unmanned Boeing Starliner in 2022

An unmanned Starliner had a successful launch and flight in 2022.
Credit: Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This spring, it seemed that Boeing had finally turned the corner and put its technical problems behind it. The test pilots prepared to fly on May 6, but Boeing scrubbed the launch during the countdown due to a worrisome oxygen relief valve on the rocket.

Teams replaced the valve, but in the meantime they discovered another small helium leak in a rubber seal on the spacecraft’s service module. After an assessment, the company has said that if the leak worsens in any way, it can be managed in space.

U.S. Space Force weather forecasters say there is a 90 percent chance of favorable conditions for Saturday’s launch.

Despite the previous problems, NASA officials said the spacecraft has been rigorously vetted for launch readiness. Associate Administrator Jim Free has emphasized that the lives of Williams and Wilmore, as well as the other astronauts on the station, are the most important.

“We definitely don’t take that lightly,” he says.

This story was originally published on May 4, 2024, before Boeing’s previous launch attempt. It has been updated to reflect the scrub and other developments since then.

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