At the moment, only SpaceX is able to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil, but Boeing hopes to change that with an uncrewed test of its Starliner spacecraft
18 May 2022
By Alex Wilkins
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is set to make its first trip to the International Space Station (ISS), after failing to do so when it launched two years ago and experiencing malfunctions since. The test is uncrewed, but if successful, it will mark an important step in expanding the capability for sending astronauts to orbit from US soil – something only SpaceX can do at the moment.
NASA and Boeing are aiming for the launch to take place at 22.54 GMT on Thursday 19 May from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Starliner, a reusable spacecraft designed for crewed trips to low Earth orbit, will launch without a crew on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. It will eventually make its way to dock with the ISS.
“We’ve completed all of our checks: the hatch is closed, we did one last cycle of all the valves and they all operated nominally. So we’re in good shape,” said commercial crew manager Mark Nappi at Boeing during a press conference on 17 May.
While Starliner’s engineers will be hoping for success come launch day, the spacecraft has had a troubled past. In 2019, it was unable to reach the ISS after a faulty clock meant the rocket’s boosters failed to properly fire after lift-off. In 2021, just hours before another scheduled launch, pre-flight checks revealed corroded valves that required repair, and the launch was postponed until 19 May.
“Getting any new spacecraft into space is always challenging,” says Libby Jackson at the UK Space Agency. “[Space companies] do testing to find out the problems, so I’m very confident that Boeing have looked through all of those – they’re not going to the launch pad without being confident that they are in a good place to test.”
If Starliner manages to launch on Thursday, it will join SpaceX as the second commercial outfit capable of flying US astronauts to space, with Starliner’s first crewed launch pencilled in for later this year. SpaceX first flew two astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon capsule in May 2020 and has since flown eight more astronauts to the ISS on a further two missions.
In 2018, when Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft was the only way to get to the ISS, a rocket malfunction meant astronauts risked being stranded on the station while the issue was investigated. Part of the reason for NASA encouraging the commercial spacecraft sector was to avoid relying on Russia, an issue that has become more pressing since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“To have two different ways of getting into space will mean that, should there be problems on either one, they have another means to get there,” says Jackson. “That’s really important for ensuring that we have continued and safe operations of the International Space Station.”
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