The long, thorny history of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft

If someone said NASA That was a decade ago SpaceX Before Boeing, astronauts will create a new mission to the International Space Station Space The agency may have laughed the person out of the room.

NASA contracted two companies in 2014 to build the spacecraft. Considered a startup at the time, SpaceX not only got its passenger shuttle to the finish line first, but carried 50 people into orbit, while Boeing continued to work. Starliner, the company’s competing plan that has yet to achieve certification. From SpaceX Team Dragon Entering service in 2020, Boeing played a veritable game of Whac-A-Mole, trying to solve one engineering problem after another, most recently flammable interior tape and parachute lines that didn’t meet safety standards.

It’s unclear why the legacy company struggled with the shuttle and faced delays. Boeing executives’ responses were sometimes stunningly opaque.

„It was surprising how many things we had to overcome,” said Mark Nappi, the company’s project manager for Starliner.

But soon Boeing A redemptive story gets its chance. For the first time, NASA astronauts will fly into orbit inside a space shuttle. Test pilots Barry „Butch” Wilmore and Sunita „Suni” Williams, who have each spent six months in space, will take the Starliner to the observatory 250 miles from Earth.

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Launching on an Atlas V rocket The night of May 6 is scheduled From the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Barring bad weather or other last-minute slipups, the shuttle could blast off as early as 10:34 pm ET.

„If something happens to Dragon, God forbid, we’ll go back to asking the Russians for a ride. I’m not sure the American people have the stomach for that.”

The crew will spend about eight days on the station checking all spacecraft systems before the ride home. Instead of launching astronauts into the ocean like SpaceX, Boeing will bring them to the Army’s White Sands missile range in New Mexico. A system of parachutes and airbags polishes the capsule’s desert landing.

NASA trusts Boeing

While Boeing’s reputation has been tarnished by a recent horror incident involving a panel that flew off a plane mid-air, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was confident the spacecraft would not be troubled by the problems plaguing the company’s flight division. and space division.

„It’s a clean spacecraft that’s ready to launch,” he said.

The Starliner spacecraft successfully landed in the New Mexico desert during an uncrewed test.
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Despite Starliner’s previous challenges, Wilmore and Williams said they were undeterred by the string of accidents and setbacks.

„Going back three years and talking about the capabilities of the spacecraft, what it was, as envisioned, where it is now, after fixing all of these discoveries and issues that we’ve found, it really leaps forward,” Wilmore told Mashable during a news conference this week.

Williams said they talked through the headlines related to their families.

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„I think they’re happy and proud that we were a part of the process to fix it all,” he said.

NASA crew prepares for Starliner launch

NASA astronauts Barry „Butch” Willmore and Sunita „Sunny” Williams will be the first people to fly aboard a Boeing Starliner.
Credit: Paul Hennessy/Anatolu via Getty Images

Why NASA Outsourced Spacecraft Construction

Ten years ago, NASA hired the billionaire Elon MuskThe relatively new rocket company and Boeing are paying just $2.6 billion to SpaceX and the latter $4.2 billion to build the spacecraft. The plan is to create a commercial space taxi market to transport astronauts to the station.

Awarding a big contract to Boeing made sense: It has already begun some work on a spacecraft, and the contractor is intertwined with NASA’s history of human space exploration, starting with Project Mercury. Those close ties were reiterated a week ago by Dana Weigel, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, who reminded reporters about Boeing’s role in the space station.

„This is not the only Boeing-built spacecraft we operate from mission control in Houston,” he said. „We’re looking forward to it [Starliner]But we are proud to operate the ISS, the longest continuously operated spacecraft in human history.”

The Starliner rides on an Atlas V rocket

The Starliner will be launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Credit: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images

After the agency retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA was forced to send Russian Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan into space. That might have been nice, but America pays more $86 million For a ride.

„We don’t have a very friendly relationship with Russia, especially recently, when the head of their space agency said, 'Well, NASA can get a big trampoline,'” Penn State aerospace engineering professor Sven Bielen told Mashable. „As an American, the inability to go into space on our own spacecraft was an embarrassment to me.”

Russia’s need to get Americans into space in 2020 is over when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passes all tests for certification, but NASA doesn’t want to keep all its eggs in Musk’s basket. After the Columbia disaster, it took the US 2.5 years to return to space. The agency wants at least two vendors, so when the space station program retires in 2031, there’s always a backup if one is grounded for any reason.

Butch Willmore trains for the launch of the Starliner

Barry „Butch” Wilmore was the first crew flight commander for the Starliner shuttle.
Credit: NASA

The need for a Plan B became clear last year when a leak on the station forced the space agency to tentatively consider carrying all astronauts aboard a single SpaceX spacecraft in case an emergency evacuation was necessary.

„If something happens to the Dragon, God forbid, we’ll go back to the Russians for a ride,” Bilon said. „I’m not sure the American people have the stomach for that.”

Starliner’s Engineering Problems and Delays

The first flight of the Starliner, carrying astronauts, was actually scheduled to launch seven years earlier. About two years later, in December 2019, Boeing was ready to send an empty Starliner to the station for an unmanned maiden mission. However, due to a software glitch, the spacecraft never arrived at the station Wrong orbitand returned to Earth without completing its mission.

Suni Williams preparing for the launch of Starliner

Astronaut and test pilot Sunitha „Suni” Williams flew the Starliner for the first time.
Credit: NASA

After a seven-month investigation, NASA ordered 80 corrective actions before Boeing could fly the Starliner again. Meanwhile, SpaceX was wrapping up a crew test scheduled for Boeing earlier Monday.

The problems only continued. Boeing began conducting another unmanned test flight and was set to launch in 2021 when engineers discovered a dozen corroded valves in the propulsion system. Revision of those parts has been rescheduled for May 2022.

Starliner’s second space flight was free of those major problems, but the series of hardware problems was far from over. Before Boeing could test the spacecraft with astronauts, more problems arose During reviews In 2023, it causes even more delays, including an additional delay Drop test For a new parachute system. The team removed and replaced a mile of combustible tape covering the spacecraft’s internal wiring, Nubby said.

NASA to launch uncrewed Boeing Starliner in 2022

An unrecruited Starliner successfully launched and flew in 2022.
Credit: Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Despite previous problems that slowed Starliner’s progress, NASA officials said the spacecraft was rigorously scrutinized. Ready to launch. Associate Administrator Jim Free stressed that the lives of Williams and Wilmore and the other astronauts aboard the station were paramount.

„We don’t take it lightly,” he said.

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