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Boeing's Starliner Successfully Launches on Crucial Final Test Flight to ISS

Boeing launched its first Starliner flight with astronauts on Wednesday, beginning a crucial final flight test of the long-delayed spacecraft.

The launch took off at 10:52 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida with two NASA astronauts aboard. Starliner is carried by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket and bound for the International Space Station.

Wednesday’s liftoff comes after a series of attempts to launch the mission, known as the Boeing crew flight test. On Saturday, a launch attempt was called off in the final minutes of the countdown due to a problem with one of the computers that provides ground support to the rocket. In early May, another attempt was called off due to an issue detected with the rocket itself.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, replaced the rocket’s problematic valve after the May attempt and replaced a faulty part in the ground infrastructure computer after Saturday’s attempt.

The ULA Atlas V rocket with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft was at Space Launch Complex 41 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 3, 2024. Boeing's second attempt at launching a crew aboard its Starliner spacecraft was dramatically aborted Saturday with just minutes left on the countdown clock, yet another setback for a program that has faced years of delays.

In between the two previous launch attempts, NASA and Boeing found a small helium leak in Starliner, causing the agency and company to perform another series of assessments. After analysis, NASA and Boeing believe the source of the leak is in the spacecraft’s helium propulsion system. Officials said after an investigation that the leak is "stable" and "not a safety of flight issue."

Starliner’s crew debut has been delayed by years, while SpaceX’s competing Dragon capsule has flown astronauts for NASA regularly since 2020 under the agency’s Commercial Crew program. To date, Boeing has absorbed $1.5 billion in costs due to Starliner setbacks and nearly $5 billion of NASA development funds.

The spacecraft was once seen as a competitor to SpaceX’s Dragon. However, various setbacks and delays have steadily pushed Starliner into a backup position for NASA, with the agency taking the rare step of reassigning astronauts off the first Boeing crew flights in 2021. Boeing is under contract to fly six operational Starliner missions to the ISS.

Wednesday’s crew flight test represents the final major step before receiving NASA certification to begin regular missions.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are flying on Starliner, with Wilmore serving as the spacecraft’s commander and Williams as its pilot.

Wilmore joined NASA in 2000 and has flown to space twice previously on the Space Shuttle and Russia’s Soyuz. Before NASA, Wilmore was a U.S. Navy pilot.

Williams was selected by NASA in 1998 and has also flown to space twice before, on the Space Shuttle and then the Soyuz. Williams was also a Navy pilot, like Wilmore, before joining the space agency.

Starliner launches on ULA’s Atlas V. The rocket debuted in 2002, and the Starliner crew flight test represents its 100th launch.

The capsule itself is built to carry as many as four NASA astronauts per flight and more than 200 pounds of research and cargo. The spacecraft lands using a parachute and airbag system. Starliner is reusable, with each capsule designed to fly as many as 10 missions.

Boeing’s crew flight test aims to certify the Starliner system as capable of carrying NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

Starliner will fly in space for about 25 hours before a planned docking with the International Space Station at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday. The astronauts will then spend about a week on the ISS, focused on testing Starliner, before returning to Earth.


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