Boeing Starliner makes historic first crewed launch

(CNN) — The Boeing Starliner is scheduled to make its first crewed flight this Saturday, a mission that has been a decade in the making.

The new spacecraft is expected to lift off aboard an Atlas V rocket at 12:25 pm ET from the Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida. The event will be livestreamed at 8:15 a.m. ET on NASA’s website.

Weather conditions are 90% favorable for launch. The only concerns are winds and cumulus clouds, said Mark Burger, 45th Weather Squadron weather officer at Space Force Station Cape Canaveral.

The mission, called the Crew Flight Test, is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft capable of competing with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and expand the U.S.’s ability to fly astronauts to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew space program. The federal agency’s initiative aims to foster collaboration with private sector partners.

If successful, the flight would be the sixth maiden flight of a crewed spacecraft in U.S. history, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a news conference in May. Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will be on board.

“It started with Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo, the Space Shuttle, then (SpaceX) Dragon, and now Starliner,” Nelson said.

Williams will also make history as the first woman to fly on board such a mission.

Boeing Crew Flight Test Mission Objectives

Once in orbit, the Starliner crew capsule carrying Wilmore and Williams will separate from the Atlas V rocket and fire its own engines. Starliner is expected to spend more than 24 hours en route to the International Space Station and land at 1:50 pm ET on Sunday.

The astronauts will test various aspects of Starliner’s capabilities, including the operation of the spacecraft’s engines, the operation of the spacesuits inside the capsule, and manual piloting in case the crew needs to disengage the spacecraft’s autopilot.

The astronauts will test the ability of Starliner’s “safe haven,” designed to provide shelter for space station crew if problems occur on the space station, according to Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Space Station Commercial Crew Program. press conference this Friday.

When it’s time to return home, Williams and Wilmore will return on the same Starliner capsule and land at a location in the southwestern United States.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore pose before launch.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore pose before launch. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

The earliest possible return for Williams and Wilmore is June 10, Stich said, but other dates are possible in case of bad weather conditions.

If the spacecraft does not lift off on Saturday as planned, there are other options for launch on June 2, 5 and 6, according to NASA.

A series of delays

Years of development delays, problems with test flights and other costly setbacks have slowed Starliner’s path to the launch pad. Meanwhile, SpaceX, Boeing’s competitor in NASA’s commercial program, has become the space agency’s astronaut transportation provider.

The mission could be the final major milestone for NASA to deem Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft ready for routine operations and carrying astronauts and cargo to the space station.

“We can’t wait to complete this mission. This is a test flight; we know we have a lot to learn,” Mark Nappi, vice president and director of Boeing’s commercial crew program, said in a statement. “We’re going to get better, and that improvement starts with the Starliner 1 mission, and it’s going to be even better than the mission we’re going to do.”
Starliner’s first manned launch attempt was only about two hours away on May 6 when engineers discovered a problem in the second stage valve, or top, of the Atlas V rocket. The whole package, rocket and. The spacecraft was removed from the launch pad to undergo testing and repairs.
Mission teams then reported a small helium leak in the spacecraft’s service module. The leak occurred in a part called a flange on the reaction control system engine, where helium is used to ignite the engines.

The space agency said the leak does not pose a threat to the mission.

“We looked very carefully at the possible uses for this particular flange,” he said. “The fuel line, oxidizer line and helium line extend into the flange, making it difficult to operate. It’s practically unsafe to work with him.”

Instead of making a replacement to fix the leak, crews decided the helium leak was small enough to be manageable, Stich said.

“When we approached this issue, it was not about making deals,” Nappi said. “It was a question of whether it was safe or not. And it’s safe. And that’s why we decided we could fly with what we had.”

During the launch countdown, mission teams will monitor the leak to see if it increases. Crews have spent the last two weeks assessing acceptable levels of helium leakage and troubleshooting, Nappi said, which were outlined in a code of practice that engineers will use when assessing the leak on Saturday morning.

While assessing the helium problem, engineers also discovered a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system, identifying a remote scenario in which some engines could fail as the vehicle leaves Earth orbit, with no backup method for returning home safely.

Since then, NASA and Boeing have worked with the launch vehicle supplier to develop a backup plan to enable orbital ignition if the situation arises, Stich explained at a May 24 press conference.

“We restored that redundancy of reserve capacity in a very distant set of failures due to direct burnout,” Stich said.
Following a flight readiness review meeting on May 29, representatives from NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance, which built the rocket, “reviewed launch readiness, including all systems, facilities and equipment to support the test flight,” the space agency said. agency.

Mission teams also took a close look at Starliner’s parachutes after one of the parachutes on Blue Origin’s recent crewed suborbital flight failed to fully inflate. Stitch explained that the Starliner uses components similar to this parachute system.

Blue Origin shared flight data with Boeing and NASA, and after evaluating Starliner’s parachutes, the team deemed them “flyable.”

Last minute luggage

There was an anomaly at the space station Wednesday that Starliner could help correct, said Dana Weigel, NASA’s International Space Station program manager.

The pump at the urine recycling station has broken down.

“This urine processor collects all of the crew’s urine and processes it into the first stage of the water recovery system,” Weigel said. “Then she sends it to a water purifier, which turns it into drinking water. The station is truly designed as a closed loop.”

The pump was expected to operate until the fall and was scheduled to be replaced during a resupply mission scheduled for August. But the pump failure “forced us to store huge amounts of urine,” Weigel explained.

Urine must now be stored on board in containers. To solve this problem, a spare pump was quickly installed in the Starliner’s cargo compartment. The bomb weighs about 100 pounds, so the team hauled two crew suitcases from the Starliner containing clothing and toiletries such as shampoo and soap picked out by Wilmore and Williams.

The space station has a stock of standard clothing and toiletries that the astronaut duo will use during their short stay, Weigel said.

Wilmore and Williams have been quarantining to protect their health ahead of the launch since late April, said NASA astronaut Mike Finke, who is assigned as pilot for Boeing’s upcoming Starliner 1 mission, a mission that will follow the successful test flight.

“Butch and Suni have complete confidence in our rocket, our spacecraft, our operational and management teams and are certainly ready to go,” he said.

CNN’s Deblina Chakraborty contributed to this report.

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