by Marcia Dunn
Cape Canaveral, Fla. ( Associated Press) — Boeing’s crew capsule rocketed into orbit Thursday on a repeat test flight without astronauts, after years of grounded defects doomed the spacecraft.
Only one test dummy was on board. If the capsule reaches the International Space Station on Friday and all else goes well, two or three NASA test pilots could strap on by the end of this year or as early as the next day for the company’s first crewed flight. Huh.
This is Boeing’s third shot at a high-stakes flight demo.
At least this time, Starliner made it into the proper orbit, quickly chasing the space station. But the all-important rendezvous and docking loom.
The first test flight of Starliner in 2019 was plagued by software errors so severe that the capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and had to leave the space station. The spacecraft came close to being destroyed as ground controllers hastily curtailed the mission.
After dozens of safety fixes, Boeing returned a detached capsule to the launch pad last summer. Rusted valves halted the countdown, resulting in another round of repairs.
The draw-out test flight program cost Boeing approximately $600 million.
“We’re not going to fly (the crew) until we feel like we’ve downplayed the risk,” NASA space operations chief Cathy Laiders stressed on the eve of liftoff.
Boeing is seeking redemption as it tries to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other contracted taxi service. Elon Musk’s company has been working to transport astronauts to and from the space station for two years and cargo for a decade.
Eager to reduce its high-price reliance on Russia for crew transportation, NASA hired Boeing and SpaceX to launch astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ended in 2011. That’s why it’s so important for Boeing’s Starliner to be successful, said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“We always, in this case, want to have a backup,” Nelson told the Associated Press a few hours before liftoff.
Different in appearance but similar to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Boeing’s fully automated capsule will attempt to dock on its own to the space station. The station’s astronauts will be ready to steer the capsule by remote control, if necessary.
Starliner will spend about a week aboard the space station before aiming for touchdown in the New Mexico desert.
NASA has yet to decide which astronauts will be on the first Starliner crew. The program is so far behind that the original three have stepped aside. Prime candidates for the evening launch of the Starliner gathered in Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.
Astronaut Butch Wilmore said, “We’re just as thrilled for it as the next one is us.”
In addition to Rosie the Rocketeer — a space-age version of World War II’s Rosie the River — the capsule is carrying groceries and spacewalking gear for seven station residents. US spacewalks have been halted since an astronaut’s helmet landed in the water in March. NASA is sending additional absorbent pads for use in helmets in case an emergency spacewalk is needed to continue the investigation.
Boeing is also flying souvenirs from historically black colleges and universities and tree seeds similar to those Apollo astronauts took to the moon that became the so-called moon trees on Earth.
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