Technology

Boeing is close to carrying astronauts aboard a new capsule

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – After years of delays and stumbles, Boeing is finally ready to launch astronauts to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA.

It is the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule with a crew on board, two NASA pilots who will test the spacecraft during the test drive, and a week-long stay on the space station.

After the space shuttles were retired, NASA turned to US companies for astronaut flights. Elon Musk SpaceX has conducted nine taxi rides for NASA since 2020, while Boeing has only conducted two uncrewed test flights.

Boeing program manager Mark Nappi wishes Starliner was further along. “There’s no doubt about it, but we’re here now.”

The company’s long-awaited astronaut demo is scheduled to launch Monday evening.

Assuming this attempt goes well, NASA will alternate using Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

A look at the newest ride and its shakedown cruise:

Boeing’s Starliner capsule, white with black and blue trim, is about 10 feet (3 meters) tall and 15 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter. It can accommodate up to seven people, although NASA’s crew typically consists of four people. The company chose the Starliner name nearly a decade ago, a variation of the name of Boeing’s early Stratoliner and the current Dreamliner.

There was no one on board Boeing’s two previous Starliner test flights. The first attempt in 2019 encountered software problems so severe that the empty capsule was only able to reach the station on the second attempt in 2022. Then last summer, flimsy parachutes and flammable tape appeared that needed to be repaired or removed.

Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are retired Navy captains who spent months aboard the space station years ago. They joined the test flight after the original crew dropped out due to increasing delays. Wilmore, 61, is a former fighter pilot from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, and Williams, 58, is a helicopter pilot from Needham, Massachusetts. The duo helped develop the capsule and insist Starliner is ready for prime time or they wouldn’t have signed up for the launch.

“We’re not burying our heads in the sand,” Williams told The Associated Press. “Sure, Boeing had its problems. But we are the QA (quality assurance). Our eyes are on the spaceship.”

Starliner will launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. It will be the first time astronauts have flown on an Atlas since NASA’s Project Mercury, starting with John Glenn when he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. 62 years later, this will be the 100th launch of the Atlas V, which will be used to lift both satellites and spacecraft.

“We are extremely careful on every mission. “We’re super, super, super cautious,” said Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Starliner should reach the space station in about 26 hours. The seven station residents will keep an eye on the approaching capsule. The arrival of a new vehicle is “a really big deal. You leave nothing to chance,” NASA astronaut Michael Barratt told the AP from orbit. Starliner will remain docked for eight days and will be inspected before landing in New Mexico or elsewhere in the U.S. West.

Both companies’ capsules are designed to be autonomous and reusable. This Starliner is the same one that completed its first test flight in 2019. Unlike the SpaceX Dragons, the Starliner has traditional hand controls and switches alongside touchscreens and, according to the astronauts, is more similar to NASA’s Orion capsules for lunar missions. Wilmore and Williams will briefly take manual control to turn off the systems on the way to the space station.

NASA gave Boeing, a longtime space company, more than $4 billion to develop the capsule, while SpaceX received $2.6 billion. SpaceX was already in the station delivery business and was simply redesigning its crew cargo capsule. While SpaceX will use the CEO’s Teslas to ferry astronauts to the launch pad, Boeing will use a more traditional “Astrovan” equipped with a video screen that will play “Top Gun: Maverick,” according to Wilmore.

A big difference at the end of the flight: Starliner lands on the ground with cushioning airbags, while Dragon splashes into the sea.

Boeing is committed to operating six Starliner flights for NASA after this flight, taking the company through the station’s scheduled end in 2030. Boeing’s Nappi is reluctant to discuss other potential customers until this first crew flight is over. However, the company has announced that a fifth seat will be available for private customers. SpaceX regularly sells seats to business tycoons and even countries that want to take their citizens to the space station for a few weeks.

Coming soon: Dream Chaser, Sierra Space’s mini-shuttle that will deliver cargo to the station before picking up passengers later this year or next.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Source link