The Boeing crew capsule rocketed into orbit Thursday in a repeat test flight without astronauts, after years of being grounded by failures that could have doomed the spacecraft.
There was only one test dummy on board. If the capsule arrives at the International Space Station on Friday and all else goes well, two or three NASA test pilots could join later this year or early next for the company’s first manned flight.
It is Boeing’s third chance at the high-risk flight demonstration.
Starliner’s first test flight in 2019 was plagued by software bugs so severe the capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and had to skip the space station. The spacecraft was nearly destroyed when ground controllers hastily aborted the mission.
After dozens of security fixes, Boeing returned a different capsule to the launch pad last summer. Corroded valves stopped the countdown, resulting in another round of repairs.
The lengthy test flight program has cost Boeing approximately $600 million.
“We’re not going to fly (crews) unless we feel like we’ve reduced the risk,” NASA chief of space operations Kathy Lueders 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 ferrying astronauts to and from the space station for two years and delivering cargo for a full decade.
Eager to reduce its costly reliance on Russia for crew transportation, NASA contracted with Boeing and SpaceX to send astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ended in 2011. That’s why it’s so important that Boeing’s Starliner succeed, said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. .
“In this case, we always want to have a backup,” Nelson told The Associated Press hours before liftoff.
Different in appearance but similar in function to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Boeing’s fully automated capsule will attempt to dock with the space station on its own. The station’s astronauts will be ready to command the capsule by remote control, if necessary.
Starliner will spend about a week on the space station before attempting to land in the New Mexico desert.
NASA has yet to finalize which astronauts will be on the first Starliner crew. The show is so far behind schedule that the original three have stepped aside. The leading candidates gathered at Cape Canaveral for the evening launch of Starliner on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.
“We’re excited about this because next is us,” astronaut Butch Wilmore said.
In addition to Rosie the Rocketeer, a space-age version of Rosie the Riveter from World War II, the pod carries groceries and spacewalking gear for the station’s seven residents. US spacewalks have been on hold since an astronaut’s helmet plunged into the water in March. NASA is shipping additional absorbent pads for use in helmets, in case an emergency spacewalk is required while the investigation continues.
Boeing is also ferrying memorabilia from historically black colleges and universities and tree seeds similar to those taken to the moon by Apollo astronauts that became so-called moon trees here on Earth.