After years of hiccups and technical problems, Boeing’s Starliner orbital spacecraft returns to the launch pad. The aerospace giant will make a second test flight of the spacecraft on Thursday as the company seeks to stay competitive in the growing space industry and loosen SpaceX’s emerging monopoly on manned missions to the International Space Station.
The CST-100 Starliner will launch aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, lifting off from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station later today at 6:54 pm EST. Starliner should reach its preliminary orbit 31 minutes after launch; If all goes according to plan, it will dock with the ISS around 7:10 p.m. EST on Friday. The spacecraft will carry more than 500 pounds of supplies for astronauts aboard the station and return to Earth 5-8 days later with more than 600 pounds of return cargo.
Atlas V, ULA’s workhorse rocket that has made 92 successful launches, was configured specifically for this mission. Instead of a payload fairing, or the nose cone used to protect the payload from the harsh effects of entering and exiting the Earth’s atmosphere, the Starliner is fitted with protective surfaces that will serve the same purpose.
Starliner’s second orbital flight test (OFT-2) comes nearly two and a half years after the first failed attempt in December 2019. During that test flight, a software problem caused the capsule to lose its target orbit and burn too much fuel; Instead of making its rendezvous with the ISS as planned, Starliner remained in an alternate orbit for a few days before NASA and Boeing officials gave the green light for its return to Earth.
Boeing originally scheduled this second test flight for last August, but it had to be scrapped just four and a half hours before launch after a problem with more than half of the spacecraft’s oxidizing valves was discovered.
Nailing this launch is key to Boeing becoming a competitive crew transport provider for NASA under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transport Capability (CCtCap) program. NASA (read: the taxpayer) has awarded a total of $4.82 billion to Boeing to develop a commercial crew transportation system, and so far that money has yet to produce a single successful mission. The other CCtCap winner, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has already started transporting astronauts to and from the ISS with the Crew Dragon capsule. The program with SpaceX has been so successful that NASA extended the SpaceX contract to include three more manned missions at a cost of $900 million.
It’s unclear what will happen if Boeing doesn’t pull off today’s launch, but it will certainly include a return to the drawing board and a complete timeline overhaul. So suffice it to say: today, all eyes are on Starliner.