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Boeing is about to launch astronauts aboard a new capsule

After years of delays and stumbles, Boeing is finally ready to launch astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.

It’s the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule with a crew on board, a pair of NASA pilots who will check out the spacecraft during its test drive and a weeklong stay on the space station.

NASA turned to American companies for astronaut rides after the space shuttles were retired. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has made nine taxi runs for NASA since 2020, while Boeing has conducted only a few unoccupied test flights.

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

The company’s long-awaited astronaut demonstration will start on Tuesday.

If this tryout goes well, NASA will alternate using Boeing and SpaceX to get astronauts to and from the space station.

A look at the latest ride and shakedown cruise:

The capsule

White with black and blue trim, Boeing’s Starliner capsule is about 10 feet high and 15 feet in diameter. It can seat up to seven people, although NASA crews will typically consist of four. The company chose the name Starliner almost ten years ago, a variation on 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, in 2019, suffered software problems so serious that the empty capsule could only reach the station on the second attempt in 2022. Last summer, weak parachutes and flammable tape showed up that needed to be repaired or removed.

The crew

Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are retired Navy captains who spent months aboard the space station years ago. They took part in the test flight after the original crew withdrew as delays mounted. Wilmore, 61, is a former fighter pilot from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, and Williams, 58, is a helicopter pilot from Needham, Massachusetts. The duo have been involved in the development of the capsule and insist that Starliner is ready for prime time, otherwise they would not participate in the launch.

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

The test flight

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

“We are super careful on every mission. We’re being super, duper, duper careful” about human missions, said Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Starliner should reach the space station in about 26 hours. The seven station residents will keep their eyes on the approaching capsule. The arrival of a new vehicle is “a very big deal. You leave nothing to chance,” NASA astronaut Michael Barratt told the AP from space. Starliner will remain docked for eight days and undergo a checkout before landing in New Mexico or elsewhere in the United States. West.

Starliner vs dragon

Both companies’ capsules are designed to be self-contained and reusable. This Starliner is the same one that made the first test flight in 2019. Unlike the SpaceX Dragons, Starliner has traditional hand controls and switches in addition to touchscreens and, according to the astronauts, looks more like NASA’s Orion capsules for moon missions. Wilmore and Williams will briefly take over manual controls to wring out the systems on the way to the space station.

NASA gave Boeing, a longtime aerospace contractor, more than US$4 billion (NZ$6.65 billion) to develop the capsule, while SpaceX got US$2.6 billion (NZ$4.3 billion). SpaceX was already in the station delivery business and only converted its crew cargo capsule. While SpaceX will use the boss’s Teslas to get astronauts to the launch pad, Boeing will use a more traditional “astrovan” equipped with a video screen that Wilmore says will play Top Gun: Maverick.

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

The future

Boeing has committed to six Starliner trips for NASA after this one, which will take the company to the station’s planned end of life in 2030. Boeing’s Nappi is reluctant to discuss other potential customers until this inaugural crew flight is over. But the company has said a fifth seat will be available for private customers. SpaceX periodically sells seats to tycoons and even countries eager to get their citizens to the station for a few weeks.

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