Boeing’s Starliner Has Finally Launched a NASA Crew Into Space

Boeing’s Starliner Has Finally Launched a NASA Crew Into Space 1

After much waiting, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has finally launched humans into space. At 10:52 am ET on Wednesday, June 5, the vehicle lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida with two NASA astronauts on board, the culmination of a troubled decade of development. Now, Boeing will hope, its own promised era of private human space travel can begin.

The two previous attempts to launch the Crew Flight Test mission were aborted: the first, on May 6, to allow a valve issue on the launch vehicle to be fixed; the second, on June 1, due to a fault with the ground launch sequencer, a key computer program that automates the launch. But with no new issues, Starliner has now lifted off into space as part of a 25-hour journey to the International Space Station, where its two passengers—Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams—will dock and spend about a week on board before returning home. (You can follow the Starliner launch right here.) If all goes to plan, beginning next year Starliner will officially enter service as a transportation vehicle for regularly taking humans to and from the ISS. Boeing has six NASA flights contracted, but the potential for more missions too—perhaps even to other destinations, such as private space stations.

“Having two different US-crewed vehicles is really important for us,” said NASA’s Dana Weigel, program manager for the ISS, in a news conference on May 3. “This crewed flight test is a critical stepping stone to reaching that broader goal.”

Nearly a decade ago, in September 2014, NASA chose two companies—Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—to design a new class of private spacecraft that could transport humans to low Earth orbit in the wake of the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, “ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia” to reach the station, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said at the time.

The goal of outsourcing missions to the ISS was to allow NASA to focus on its broader goals of returning humans to the moon (which it hopes to do by 2026 as part of its Artemis program) and eventually to Mars. “The whole concept is to get to a point where NASA is freed up to think about the next horizon beyond the space station,” says Daniel Dumbacher, chief executive officer of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

SpaceX, which received an initial $2.6 billion as part of the program, has already fulfilled its side of the bargain. In 2020, its Crew Dragon spacecraft launched its first humans to space for NASA, and it has since carried nearly 50 people—both government astronauts and paying customers, such as the US billionaire Jared Isaacman—into space. Boeing, which received $4.2 billion, has had a much more troubled path with Starliner.

The vehicle was initially supposed to launch in 2017 but was beset by delays. In 2019, when it finally did launch on an uncrewed test flight, it entered the wrong orbit and failed to reach the ISS. It wouldn’t achieve this goal until three years later in 2022, by which time SpaceX had launched five human spaceflight missions. “It’s been hugely embarrassing for Boeing,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The issues have been exacerbated by the ongoing issues with the separate aviation branch of the company, including two of the company’s Boeing 737 Max planes being lost in accidents in 2018 and 2019, an exit door blowing off one of the planes in January, and multiple whistleblowers—two of whom subsequently died—coming forward to air concerns.

“It fits in with the general narrative of Boeing having lost its way,” says McDowell.

Starliner, like Crew Dragon, is a capsule-shaped spacecraft like the Apollo missions of old. Capable of carrying up to seven astronauts, the craft is largely autonomous, requiring major input only in the event of an emergency. During the test mission beginning tonight, Wilmore and Williams will test out this eventuality, purposefully pointing the spacecraft off course to ensure they can manually get it back on track, as well as assessing the spacecraft’s general life support and navigation systems. While docked to the space station, the vehicle will be put through further tests, including practicing using it as a lifeboat in case astronauts needed to evacuate the ISS.

Starliner is reusable, with Boeing saying it can be flown on up to 10 missions. The spacecraft sports no toilet—unlike Crew Dragon—and has about the same livable volume as an SUV, making for a relatively cozy rise to and from orbit. It has physical hand controls and switches for the astronauts to control the spacecraft, unlike the touch screens used inside Crew Dragon. On its return home, a heat shield keeps the occupants safe from temperatures of some 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before the vehicle descends under parachute and finally touches down, with the help of airbags to cushion the fall, in one of several desert landing sites in the US.

Boeing is contracted with NASA to launch Starliner six times to the ISS after this test mission, each time carrying four or five astronauts along with cargo for six-month stays aboard the station. The spacecraft will alternate its missions with Crew Dragon, one launching around February and one around August each year. Having that redundancy is hugely beneficial, says Steven Siceloff, public affairs specialist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “This way, if a technical issue does come up with one vehicle, it does not mean that the space station is on its own for a while,” he says. “It means that there’s alternatives.”

Laura Forczyk, founder of the space consulting firm Astralytical, notes that redundancy is “especially important now because of the unreliability of Russia.” NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, continue to cooperate on the ISS program, including sharing seats between Russia’s Soyuz vehicle, Crew Dragon, and now Starliner, despite the embittered political situation between the two nations.

But beyond these six missions, Boeing has no publicized flights planned for Starliner. “If this was SpaceX, you’d already have Musk talking about three or four contracts that he had in line with famous people,” says McDowell. With the ISS also set to be deorbited in 2030, this could mean Starliner—despite a decade of development and billions of dollars spent—faces the prospect of flying only a handful of times. “We don’t know whether Boeing has the capacity to do additional commercial missions at this time,” says Forczyk.

NASA has been trying to spur the development of new commercial space stations, in the same manner as this commercial crew program, in the hopes they can fill the orbital research void left when the ISS ends. These commercial stations could be destinations for Starliner and Crew Dragon, if they come to fruition, but the exact appetite for this endeavor remains uncertain. “Is there enough of a market to sustain two entities doing this?” says McDowell. “I remain skeptical of commercial space stations. But if they do succeed, you’re going to want multiple options to get up and down.”

Before it grapples with that future, Boeing will simply be hoping for a smooth and successful first crewed flight of Starliner. Once it’s finally in the skies with humans on board, the spacecraft can start to play the role it has long been touted for.

Updated 5-7-2024 10:30 am BST: Details of the new launch time for the mission added, after the original May 6 launch was scrubbed.

Updated 6-5-2024 5:30 pm BST: Details of the successful launch added.