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Boeing's first Starliner mission with humans set for historic Space Coast launch tonight

Atlas V rocket
Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

The stage is set for some space history to be made tonight as two veteran NASA astronauts aim to launch in a spacecraft that has never flown with humans before.

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will climb aboard Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule and lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 at 10:34 p.m. on the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission to the International Space Station.

NASA's live coverage of the leadup to launch will begin on NASA TV and its social media channels beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The pair, along with 750 pounds of supplies, would arrive to the station early Wednesday—at 12:46 a.m—to begin an eight-day stay before a return flight home as early as May 15 that would have a primary landing site of White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

"This is a . That brings to bear all the things that the title implies," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "Because it is a test flight, we give extra attention. They're checking out a lot of the systems—the life support, the manual control, all of those things that you want to be checked out.

"That's why we put two on board, and of course the resumes of Butch and Suni are extensive," he said.

Both astronauts are retired Navy and have flown to space two times previous each, both on the and on Russia Soyuz spacecraft with stays on board the ISS. Wilmore is the commander for this flight and joined NASA in 2000. Williams is pilot and joined in 1998.

"We have been through quite the process over the years," said Wilmore on a media call last Wednesday. "It's been really a thrilling process. I mean, to be two Navy trained test pilots and be into the process of this first flight, and all that goes into that and all the discovery that we've had over the years and working together with our Boeing counterparts, test after test, evaluation after evaluation. Every single day is different, and that's been intriguing, and thrilling along the way."

Williams and Wilmore had been targeting several liftoff dates in 2023 before hardware delays required fixes pushing the attempt into 2024.

"It almost feels unreal," Williams said. "Like we've had a couple launch dates and we've been like, 'Okay, we're ready to go,' but now it's like, heck five, five days… which means it is actually finally real, and I sort of have to pinch myself a little bit to understand we're actually, we're going."

All teams signed off on the mission at last week's Launch Readiness Review and the Atlas V was rolled to the on Saturday. Space Launch Delta 45's weather squadron forecasts a 95% chance for good conditions, although NASA has backup opportunities on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

"The most exciting thing for me about the Launch Readiness Review was at the very end," said NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich. "We heard from Butch and Suni, and they talked about their excitement. And after everybody had polled go, Butch got on and wanted to say one thing to the team and he said he's go for launch."

NASA's Commercial Crew Program awarded Boeing and SpaceX contracts back in 2014 to build spacecraft capable of flying its astronauts to and from the ISS.

Starliner is only the sixth ever U.S.-based spacecraft to fly with NASA astronauts following Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle and SpaceX's Crew Dragon.

It also marks a return of human launches from Cape Canaveral's launch pads, which last saw a crewed flight in 1968 with the launch of Apollo 7. Every Apollo mission afterward as well as the space shuttle and Crew Dragon launches have come from nearby Kennedy Space Center.

It's the first time an Atlas V will fly with humans as well, although earlier iterations of the Atlas rocket flew several human spaceflights in the early 1960s including John Glenn's historic trip to space as the first American to each orbit in 1962. This also marks the 100th launch of an Atlas V rocket.

Starliner will also become the first U.S.-based capsule to make a land touchdown as Crew Dragon, Apollo, Gemini and Mercury all made water landings, as will the Artemis program's Orion capsule that has yet to fly with humans. Russia's Soyuz, though, features land touchdowns.

Dragon and Starliner are NASA's solution to replace the retired Space Shuttle Program—which last flew in 2011—and end its reliance on Soyuz, which filled the gap as NASA's only option for nearly nine years.

SpaceX was able to complete its crewed test flight in 2020. Elon Musk's company has since flown its fleet of Crew Dragons 13 times, carrying 50 humans to space, including the four members of Crew-8 who await the arrival of Starliner on board the ISS.

The CFT mission comes nearly two years since Starliner last flew on the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), a successful trip to the ISS without a crew, just a mannequin named "Rosie the Rocketeer."

The first human to ever venture into Starliner in space was actually NASA's Bob Hines, a member of Crew-4 in 2022.

"Nobody stepped inside. I floated inside," he said. "It was me. I got to open the hatch … We had agreed early on that as a new guy, this was a good project for me to kind of take on, and so I was the lead for when the Starliner mission was up there on space station."

He is now part of the NASA's joint test team for crews prepping for both SpaceX Dragon and Boeing Starliner, and has been working with the CFT crew leading up to this launch.

"I got to open the hatch and go in and kind of lead that mission," he said. "It was pretty cool, and it's almost coming full circle here being very involved in getting crew off the ground."

Having flown up to the ISS on Dragon, he took note of the differences between the two capsules.

"One, it was very obvious that there are different philosophies in approaching human spaceflight, which is really neat to see as a test pilot," he said. "A different cabin layout, a totally different capsule design, a different philosophy for operating the vehicle … So it was really neat and eye opening to see another solution."

That mission was a do-over mission from the original uncrewed test flight, now referred to as OFT-1, that in 2019 saw myriad issues including not being able to dock with the ISS. But now nearly four years behind SpaceX, Boeing, which has spent more than $1.5 billion on Starliner's development, looks to finally get its spacecraft certified to perform normal rotational missions to the ISS.

"It's important that we're making history. I feel that a lot as the Commercial Crew Program manager," Stich said. "It was just four years ago we brought the Dragon spacecraft online and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and then here we are now four years later bringing another system online."

Stich said the years of delay aren't as important as making sure the flight is a safe one.

"We've been taking our time to go through everything methodically because it is a test flight, and we want it to go well," he said. "I'm sure we'll learn something on orbit and we'll learn something during the flight but our team is checking, double-checking everything and making sure we're really ready to go."

If all goes well with CFT, that first operational mission, dubbed Starliner-1, could fly with four astronauts to the ISS as early as next February and become the first of six Boeing missions that would share taxi duties with SpaceX to the station until the ISS is decommissioned after 2030.

"We have been striving in Commercial Crew to have two independent space transportation systems," Stich said. "That's been our goal since from Commercial Crew's inception and we're very close to reaching that goal."

2024 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Citation: Boeing's first Starliner mission with humans set for historic Space Coast launch tonight (2024, May 6) retrieved 21 June 2024 from
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