Boeing is set to launch its long-awaited Starliner spacecraft — which is designed to carry NASA astronauts — on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station, following up on the company’s botched first attempt 18 months ago. It will be a pivotal moment for Boeing and NASA, as the traditional aerospace behemoth looks to join SpaceX in ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.
However, the capsule and the rocket that will launch it into orbit will now be rolled off the launch pad and into a nearby rocket assembly facility as Boeing and NASA teams work to resolve a propulsion system issue that has kept the launch in limbo since Monday, according to a statement released by Boeing late Tuesday. According to the company, the ongoing issues will keep Starliner grounded until at least Wednesday.
The Starliner was also supposed to launch from Florida on Friday afternoon and dock with the International Space Station on Saturday. However, when Russia’s Nauka laboratory module docked at the space station on Thursday morning, the thrusters on the module began firing unexpectedly.
Though no one was in danger and ground teams regained control of the space station after about an hour, Starliner’s launch was postponed until Tuesday to allow mission control to “continue working checkouts of the newly arrived Nauka module and to ensure the station will be ready for Starliner’s arrival,” according to NASA.
However, Boeing announced the detected issue with the Starliner’s propulsion system on Tuesday morning, which was discovered after a series of checks were ordered following a lightning storm the day before.
On the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 ahead of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission on Thursday, July 29, 2021, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with a Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen on the launch pad ahead of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The Starliner test launch is one of Boeing’s and NASA’s most important missions of the year. The spacecraft is expected to be Boeing’s response to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has already begun flying astronauts and marked the end of a decade-long hiatus in human spaceflight on US soil.
Both Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are designed to transport astronauts and possibly tourists to and from the International Space Station and were developed under contract with NASA, though they will be owned and operated by their respective companies.
If everything goes according to plan during Starliner’s upcoming uncrewed test mission, the fully autonomous spacecraft will spend a few days in orbit — without humans on board — before docking with the International Space Station to show that the capsule is capable of safely completing the mission. It will then return to Earth and land in the New Mexico desert via parachute.
Boeing has been working on a spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station since the early 2010s, but has run into numerous delays and technical issues.
The flight also comes at a time when investors and customers are keeping a close eye on Boeing as it deals with a slew of controversies and scandals, most notably involving its 737 Max aircraft, as well as questions about its internal safety culture.
NASA and Boeing are eager for the Starliner to successfully complete this test run so that it can resume regular operations.