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Starliner enters orbit, headed to space station, but not without a glitch

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Boeing's Starliner spacecraft reached orbit May 19 on its way to dock with the International Space Station, completing a major step after two failed attempts. (Video: NASA)

Updated May 19, 2022 at 10:32 p.m. EDT|Published

May 19, 2022 at 6:06 p.m. EDT

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Boeing's Starliner spacecraft finally reached orbit Thursday on its way to docking with the International Space Station, completing a major step after two previous failed attempts that became part of the company's many woes and a symbol of its fall from grace.

But the accomplishment was marred when at a postlaunch briefing, Boeing revealed that two of the four thrusters that were to put the spacecraft into the correct orbit failed.

Starliner has 12 thrusters that can be used for such maneuvers, backups kicked in and the spacecraft entered the correct orbit, officials said. They remained optimistic that the problem will not disrupt the mission, noting that the spacecraft has only a few major thruster firings left on its way to the station. And once Starliner gets closer, it will use smaller thrusters to adjust its position for docking.

The larger thrusters won't come into play again until the capsule departs the station to deorbit on its return to Earth, but that, too, should not pose a problem, said Steve Stich, NASA's commercial crew program manager.

Meanwhile, engineers on the ground will investigate why the thrusters failed. They're "trying to understand what happened and put a plan together to see if they could recover the thrusters," Stich said.

"The system is designed to be redundant, and it performed like it was supposed to," said Mark Nappi, a Boeing vice president who oversees the Starliner program. "And now the team is working the why we had those anomalies occur."

He added, "The spacecraft is in excellent condition. ... Today feels really good, and we have a lot of confidence in the vehicle."

The flight is a test for Boeing to demonstrate that its autonomous capsule can meet up with the station and then park itself. Thursday's flight was a test of the spacecraft without any people on board. If the mission goes well, Boeing would later begin to start flying NASA astronauts.

Word of the thruster failures came after the spacecraft successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 6:54 p.m. aboard an Atlas V rocket, lighting up the skies over the Florida Space Coast.

The capsule still needs to catch up with the space station, flying in orbit at 17,500 mph. Then it needs to edge closer and closer to the station, pausing at various increments to make sure it is correctly positioned. Then NASA will give it the green light to dock.

The return is a big test as well. Starliner will undock from the station after a few days, then come hurtling through the thickening atmosphere while generating temperatures of about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat shield has to hold. The parachutes have to work to slow it down for landing. As do the air bags that Starliner deploys to ensure a soft touch down at one of the remote landing sites it has chosen in the western United States.

"It's a major milestone to get behind us, but it's just the beginning," said Brandi Dean, a NASA spokesperson, said on the online broadcast of the launch.

But while NASA and Boeing were cheering, saying the launch was a major relief and a much-needed win, it was still just a first step. There is a long road ahead.

"We're going to take this one step at a time," Kathy Lueders, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told reporters before the flight. "We're going to use this as learning for us and then be able to fly our crews."

Boeing had tried and failed on two previous attempts to perform the uncrewed test flight to the space station.

The first flight attempt, in December 2019, went awry because of a major software problem. The capsule's onboard clock was 11 hours off. Ground controllers struggled to communicate with the spacecraft, and had to end the mission without docking with the space station.

Boeing spent some 18 months fixing the software issues, going through all 1 million lines of code and investigating the problem alongside NASA. Finally, the spacecraft returned to the launch pad in July 2021, but hours before launch, engineers discovered that 13 valves in the service module could not be opened.

Boeing and NASA said they had resolved the issue and were ready to fly again.

After the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA looked to the private sector to fly cargo and supplies and then eventually its astronauts to the space station. In 2014, it awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of flying astronauts under its commercial crew program. Initially, most in the space industry expected Boeing to fly first because of its long heritage in spaceflight. But SpaceX flew its uncrewed test mission in March 2019 and its first crewed mission in 2020 and has flown several more since.

Despite Boeing's problems, NASA officials have expressed confidence in the company and its capsule.

Speaking to reporters before the flight, NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore said he and his fellow astronauts assigned to the Starliner flights "wouldn't be here right now if we weren't confident that this would be a successful mission. But as you mentioned, there are always unknown unknowns. That's what historically has always gotten us. It's those things that we don't know about, and we don't expect."

Still, he added: "We're ready."

Suni Williams, another NASA astronaut who could fly on one of Starliner's first flights acknowledged that "there's a lot of work ahead of us before we get to the crewed flight. But we're champing at the bit. We're ready for the spacecraft to go to the space station, be really successful, come back, have a nice soft landing. And then we'll be ready for the work."

Launch successful, but it's only the first step

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The launch of the Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station has gone well, but there are several more daunting tasks in the days ahead. The spacecraft has to catch up with the orbing laboratory, which is traveling at 17,500 mph, and then approach it very slowly and carefully before proceeding with docking.

After spending several days attached to the station, the spacecraft will undock, fly a safe distance from the station and then begin its descent toward Earth. As it plunges through the atmosphere, the heat shield will have to withstand extreme temperatures. Then the parachutes will have to successfully deploy to slow the capsule before touching down on land.

Orbital insertion burn complete

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The Boeing Starliner has completed a 40-second burn of its engines, putting it on course to reach the International Space Station. The spacecraft is expected to dock with the station at 7:10 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

How Starliner lands

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Unlike SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, or the space shuttle, which landed on a runway, Boeing's Starliner will land on land.

The company has several predetermined landing sites in the western United States, including at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Starliner descends under three parachutes and then deploys air bags that act as cushions on touchdown.

Spacecraft separation. This is when problems arose before.

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The Boeing Starliner has separated from the second stage of the rocket and is now coasting on its own. It will soon fire its four engines to put it on the path to the International Space Station. This is when problems arose during the flight in December 2019.

Boeing has competition from SpaceX

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While Boeing struggled to get Starliner off the ground, Elon Musk's SpaceX, the other company under contract from NASA to fly NASA astronauts to and from the space station, has been charging ahead.

It successfully completed its uncrewed test flight to the station on March 8, 2019. But then a month later, its Dragon spacecraft exploded while on a test stand. An investigation by SpaceX and NASA found that the explosion was caused by a faulty valve that led to a propellant leak. SpaceX fixed the problem and, in May 2020, flew its first crewed mission to the station, ferrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to orbit and back.

Since then, SpaceX has completed four operational launches with a full contingent of four astronauts.

SpaceX has also flown two crews made up entirely of private citizens. The first of those, known as Inspiration4 and funded by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, flew in orbit for three days. The second, commissioned by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, took four private citizens to the space station.

Liftoff

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The Atlas V rocket has lifted off from its launchpad at Cape Canaveral, carrying the Starliner spacecraft to orbit. If all goes well, Starliner will separate from the booster about 15 minutes into flight, and then fire its engines for 40 seconds to put it on a path to the International Space Station.

Boeing's delays have forced NASA to shuffle astronaut assignments

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The delays in Boeing's Starliner program have also roiled NASA's astronaut assignments. Two astronauts that were originally assigned to fly to the space station on Boeing's Starliner capsule were switched to SpaceX, and NASA still has not settled on who will be crewing Boeing's first flight with astronauts on board.

Originally, former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, a Boeing executive, was selected to fly the first test flight. But he pulled himself out of the program in 2020, citing family commitments. NASA had assigned astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore to the flight as well as Mike Fincke. But this week, NASA said it is still evaluating who will be on the flight.

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, Kathy Lueders, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said that Fincke and Wilmore were working alongside NASA astronaut Suni Williams as a cadre and that the final selections had not yet been made for the two-person crew.

Lueders said NASA and Boeing "need to make sure that there isn't anything we need to update or fix on the spacecraft that we're planning to have ready by the end of the year." She said NASA needs to give the astronaut office time as it does that, "to go look at all the selections and make sure we're putting the right people in the right place."

NASA astronaut Nicole Mann also was originally selected to fly on Boeing's first crewed flight, but NASA transferred her to SpaceX's next mission, which is currently scheduled for the fall. Another NASA astronaut, Josh Cassada, who was scheduled to fly on Starliner's first operational mission, also was switched to SpaceX's coming flight.

NASA said the reassignments were to give "Boeing time to complete the development of Starliner while continuing plans for astronauts to gain spaceflight experience for the future needs of the agency's missions."

If Starliner's uncrewed test flight goes as planned, Boeing hopes to start flying astronauts later this year or early next.

A test flight to see if the capsule works before carrying people

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Boeing is under contract with NASA to develop and build a spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station as part of the space agency's commercial crew program.

Before it attempts a test flight with astronauts, Boeing will fly its autonomous Starliner capsule without anyone onboard. So on Thursday at 6:54 p.m., it is scheduled to launch the spacecraft on an Atlas V rocket operated by the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to the space station.

If all goes well, the capsule will separate from the rocket, then fly on its own to the station, docking approximately 24 hours later.

After staying attached to the station for a few days, the spacecraft is to return home, landing in a desolate area in the western United States.

A tale of two spacecraft

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They both look like gumdrops, mimicking the shape of spacecraft used by the Apollo astronauts. They both are designed to carry crew and cargo to orbit. They both use heat shields to protect their charges as they plunge back to Earth through the atmosphere. Both have been designed under contract from NASA under its commercial crew program to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

They are designed to fly autonomously, though trained astronauts monitoring the flight can step in to manually fly the vehicles, if necessary. And they both are designed to fly private citizens as well as professionally trained astronauts.

But despite those similarities, there are some differences between Boeing's Starliner spacecraft and SpaceX's Dragon. SpaceX's is taller, 26.7 feet with its trunk compared to 16.5 feet for Starliner, which has a broader diameter at 15 feet compared to Dragon's 13 feet.

Dragon lands in the water and is then plucked out of the sea by rescue operators on a boat. Starliner lands on land, using air bags to cushion the touchdown at predetermined sites including the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Edwards Air Force Base in California. Dragon flies atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Starliner flies on the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V.

Dragon has flown several missions with people on board; Starliner's first could come by the end of the year if its uncrewed test flight is successful.

The rocket that will launch Starliner is a workhorse

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The rocket that is to propel the Starliner spacecraft into orbit is an Atlas V operated by the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It is a workhorse of a rocket that has a long string of successful flights, but it uses a Russian-made engine.

ULA has a deal, however, with Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin to buy its American-made BE-4 engines that would power its next-generation rocket, known as Vulcan Centaur. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) While the BE-4 engine deliveries have been delayed by years, ULA's CEO Tory Bruno has said that the company plans to have them soon and that ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket should be ready to fly for the first time by the end of this year.

Weather looking good for launch

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The weather at Cape Canaveral is looking good for a launch tonight. Earlier in the day Thursday, the Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron said there was an 80 percent chance of "go" for launch. But later in the day, they upgraded that to 90 percent. There is some cloudiness, which could force a delay. It is also quite sticky, with a projected 78 percent humidity.

If the launch is moved to Friday, conditions are "expected to deteriorate significantly Friday afternoon and evening as a plume of deeper moisture moves upward from South Florida," the squadron said. "As a result, the forecast remains more pessimistic for the backup opportunity."

What's at stake for Boeing and NASA? A lot.

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It is hard to overstate the significance of this flight for Boeing. After two failed attempts to fly its Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station, Thursday's launch simply has to go well.

Over the past several years, the company's reputation has been severely damaged — from the 737 Max crashes, the ensuing scandal, supply chain constraints associated with the coronavirus pandemic and delayed deliveries of commercial airplanes.

Boeing had been hoping that Starliner would be a bright spot in the midst of all that trouble, but it has also struggled.

The first flight attempt, in December 2019, went awry because of a major software problem. The capsule's onboard clock was 11 hours off. Ground controllers struggled to communicate with the spacecraft and had to end the mission without docking with the space station.

Boeing spent some 18 months fixing the software issues, going through all 1 million lines of code and investigating the problem alongside NASA. Finally, the spacecraft returned to the launchpad in July 2021, but hours before launch, engineers discovered that 13 valves in the service module could not be opened.

After days of trying to fix the problem, Boeing rolled the spacecraft back into the factory and discovered that propellant seeping through a valve mixed with moisture in the air to create nitric acid. That corroded the valves and stuck them shut.

Since then, Boeing and NASA say they have worked together to resolve the issue and are ready to launch again.

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