June 16, 2024


Two Nasa astronauts were on their way to the International Space Station on Wednesday after Boeing’s pioneering Starliner capsule finally made its much-delayed first crewed flight from Cape Canaveral.

The visually stunning liftoff, against a mostly clear and blue sky in Florida, came seven years past the spacecraft’s original target date, five years after the failure of an unmanned test flightand following a more recent series of postponements for technical reasons that saw launch attempts cancelled two times.

Veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams reached orbit 12 minutes after the 10:52 a.m. ET launch. They are scheduled to dock with the ISS on Thursday, and if the eight- to 10-day mission is successful, Starliner will give Nasa a second option to send people to low-Earth orbit to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule transport.

“This is truly a historic day,” said Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator.

“Right now we have one provider that gives us that access to the space station. It will give us a second provider… if we have a problem with either we have ways to get our crews to and from the station which helps keep the pace we’ve had for 23 years to have people in low earth orbit.”

The launch also provided a welcome boost for Boeing. Although space operations are conducted independently of its aerospace wing, executives will be pleased to have the company’s name attached to good news following a recent series of safety and quality issues.

“The whole company rallied around us. I get emotional talking about it,” Aaron Kraftcheck, senior manager for Starliner’s flight software, design and development, told reporters in April.

Nasa has ordered a further six astronaut rotation flights to the space station from Boeing as part of its commercial crew program. Each capsule can be flown up to 10 times, Boeing says, with a six-month turnaround between each mission.

The high-tech Starliner capsule, officially called CST-100 (crewed space transport), is designed to completely change how astronauts fly in space. Its autonomous flight, navigation and course-correction systems effectively make Williams and Wilmore passengers only, although they can step in to take over manually if necessary.

Innovation includes a weldless design, which reduces the risk of structural failure, and interior space similar to a mid-size SUV. Starliner can carry up to seven people, but will be configured for four astronauts and cargo for space station flights.

Today’s crew both have extensive spaceflight experience, having spent more than 500 days in orbit between them on previous spacecraft and ISS missions. With Wednesday’s launch from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, Williams became the first woman to fly in an orbital test vehicle.

“Butch and Suni bring a lot to the table to help us as a team get to a place where we are ready to fly. They’ve been very integral to the process for years, and it all culminates with this one,” LeRoy Cain, manager of mission integration and operations for Boeing’s commercial crew program and a former NASA flight director, told Nasa TV said.

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Cain was flight director during the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2002, which killed seven astronauts, and he said safety was an overriding priority.

“Exploring space is not for the faint of heart. It has the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It is very unforgiving [and] the margins are small. I expect this to be a very successful flight test. I think we will learn a few things, we learn every time we fly. And that’s part of the beauty of this business, part of why we were so drawn to space exploration.”

In a brief speech from Starliner’s flight deck immediately before launch, Wilmore paid tribute to the hundreds of NASA and Boeing employees who worked on the mission, and the 450 suppliers from 37 states who contributed.

“[They are] people who use their gifts and talents for the common good are passionate,” he said.

“We all know that when the going gets tough, and it often does, the tough get going, and Suni and I are honored to share this dream of spaceflight with each of you.”



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