Boeing Launches Starliner Astronaut Capsule on Crewless Test Mission – CBS Tampa

MELBOURNE, Fla. (CW44 News At 10 | CNN) – Boeing launched its Starline spacecraft on an unmanned test mission to the orbiting outpost Thursday evening. After two previous attempts to complete such a mission failed, Boeing’s goal is to prove that the spacecraft can dock at the ISS. It must pass before it can progress to missions with people on board.

The spacecraft took to the skies at 6:54 p.m. ET Thursday, atop an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. After the rocket launched the capsule into orbit, the spacecraft fired its own thrusters to orient it in the correct direction. About half an hour after launch, Boeing officials confirmed the Starliner’s “orbital insertion” — a sign that the spacecraft is on the right track.

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But at a post-launch briefing, officials revealed that the thrusters were not working exactly as intended.

“We had two thrusters that failed,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Starliner program. “The first to fire fired for a second and then stopped. The flight control system did what it was supposed to do, and it passed it on to the second thruster.”

That thruster then fired only about 25 seconds before shutting down, according to Nappi. The flight control system once again took over and stepped on a third thruster, which fired as intended.

“The system was designed to be redundant and it performed as it should,” Nappi told reporters on Thursday evening.

The issue is not expected to affect the overall mission, Nappi said.

On board this flight are some supplies for the astronauts already aboard the ISS, as well as a spacesuit-clad mannequin named Rosie, after World War II’s Rosie the Riveter.

Starliner has proven to be a difficult program for Boeing, which originally hoped the spacecraft would be operational in 2017, but was plagued by delays and development failures. The first attempt of this test flight, called OFT-1, was aborted in 2019 due to a problem with the Starliner’s built-in clock. The error caused the thrusters aboard the capsule to fail, causing it to drift off course, and officials decided to return the spacecraft to its home rather than continue the mission. It took over a year to fix that problem and a series of other software problems.

More recently, the Starliner has been plagued by valve problems. When the spacecraft rolled out to the launch pad in August 2021, a pre-flight check found that the main valves were left in place and engineers were unable to immediately resolve the issue.

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Ultimately, the capsule had to be rolled back from the launch pad. When technicians were unable to repair it on site, it eventually had to be taken all the way back to Boeing’s factory for a more thorough troubleshooting.

The valves have since become an ongoing source of contention for the company. According to a recent Reuters report, the subcontractor producing the valves, Alabama-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, has been at odds with Boeing over the root cause of the valve problem.

Boeing and NASA disagree, according to the report and comments from NASA officials at recent press conferences.

Their investigation found that moisture got into the valves and caused “corrosion” and “bonding,” Boeing vice president and Starliner program manager, Mark Nappi, said at a news conference last week. That led the company to come up with a short-term solution, creating a purification system that includes a small bag designed to keep out corrosive moisture. NASA and Boeing say they are satisfied with this solution.

“We’re in good shape to start flying with that system,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said last week.

But that may not be the end. Boeing announced last week that it may eventually have to redesign the valves.

“We want to do a little bit of extra testing, and based on those results, we’ll determine what kind of changes we’ll make in the future,” Nappi said. “We’ll probably know more in the coming months.”

If Boeing proceeds with a more extensive redesign of the valves, it’s not clear how long that would take or whether it could further delay Boeing’s first astronaut mission, which is currently years behind schedule. The hangups with Starliner also cost the company about half a billion dollars, according to public documents.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, once considered the underdog competitor in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has already launched five astronaut missions for NASA, as well as two tourist missions. The inaugural astronaut launch of its vehicle, the Crew Dragon, was the first to orbit astronauts from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011.

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