Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is about to make its first crewed flight

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is about to make its first crewed flight

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft approaching the International Space Station

NASA

Boeing’s Starliner capsule is finally making its first crewed flight. On 6 May, it will launch atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. If the launch goes to plan, Starliner and its two passengers will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) on 8 May.

Starliner has been in the works for more than a decade, but its first test flight didn’t take place until 2019. That flight reached orbit, but software issues prevented it from meeting up with the ISS. A second uncrewed test flight in 2022 was successful, setting the stage for the first crewed test.

The two test astronauts aboard Starliner are Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams, each of whom has already been to the ISS twice before. The plan is for them to stay aboard the ISS for a week before returning to Earth.

The goal of this mission is to prove that Starliner is a safe option for transporting crew to and from the ISS, so most of its objectives involve testing out the spacecraft and its software. This is also the first time the Atlas V rocket has been used for a crewed mission. If all goes well, Starliner will be authorised for operation and begin making annual crewed flights.

NASA awarded Boeing the contract to use Starliner as a shuttle to the ISS in 2014, at the same time as a similar contract was awarded to SpaceX for its Dragon capsule. Boeing has lagged behind Dragon, which made its first crewed flight in 2020 and is now on its eighth operational mission.

When both are operational, it will give NASA a choice between rides to the ISS, which has not been the case since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. “This will give us that additional capability, because we always look for a backup,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a 3 May press briefing. SpaceX has dominated crewed space flight in the US for years, so this may be the beginning of a broader playing field.

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