A few hours ago, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft blasted off atop a ULA Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on the Boe-OFT 2 (Boeing Orbital Flight Test 2) mission. After about fifteen minutes it successfully separated from the rocket’s last stage and about half an hour after launch it carried out the maneuvers to enter orbit and begin the pursuit of the International Space Station.
The interruption of the Boe-OFT test, the first for the Starliner spacecraft, in December 2019, was quite a setback for Boeing. Despite NASA’s attempts to see the glass half full in official statements mentioning successes in blast off and landing, the failure to reach the International Space Station was impossible to ignore. The subsequent investigation also highlighted other problems with the Starliner besides the one that sent it into the wrong orbit.
The first statements after the Starliner’s landing left open the possibility of moving on to crewed missions all the same. However, Boeing’s need to troubleshoot and NASA’s need to verify the situation led to the decision to conduct another uncrewed test.
It took much longer than expected to get to the Boe-OFT 2 test, as there were other problems connected to the need for the staff to work safely during the pandemic. In the summer of 2021, it seemed that the time for the test had finally arrived and bad luck struck when there was a further postponement due to the need to put the International Space Station back in its correct asset after the unscheduled thruster ignition of the new Russian module Nauka moved it.
Nearly a year of delay was due to the discovery of new problems in various valves in the Starliner’s propulsion system that forced Boeing to make modifications to prevent moisture from seeping in and causing corrosion. That led to the replacement of the Starliner service module but Boeing is working on a final solution that requires a valve replacement.
Aboard the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, there’s again the dummy nicknamed Rosie, in some ways similar to the ones used for car safety tests. It’s equipped with sensors that will record the physical stresses it will be subjected to during the journey to the Station and back. It’s sitting in the crew cabin wearing the spacesuit like a real astronaut so that the stresses are what humans who will travel in standard missions will have to endure.
For the occasion, the Starliner spacecraft is also used as a space freighter carrying over 200 kg of supplies for the International Space Station crew and over 100 kg of other cargoes. The Starliner is designed to carry up to seven people but normal missions require carrying only three or four people. This leaves room for some cargo, an important possibility considering that for now the only space freighter capable of bringing significant cargo back to Earth is SpaceX’s Dragon.
At last, the Starliner spacecraft is in orbit and is scheduled to reach the International Space Station today around 7.10 PM UTC. This is another crucial step for Boeing but also for NASA, which wants to have two astronaut transport service providers.