A Boeing spacecraft carrying two astronauts takes off on a historic journey

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on exciting discoveries, scientific advances and more.

The third try was the charm for the Boeing Starliner mission after it launched its first crewed flight test on Wednesday in a decade-long milestone.

The much-anticipated journey of the new spacecraft took off on an Atlas V rocket at 10:52 am from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are riding aboard the Starliner capsule on a journey that takes them to the International Space Station.

Weather conditions were 90% favorable for a Wednesday morning launch, with the only concern being cumulus clouds, according to the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

The mission, called the Crew Flight Test, is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and expand the United States’ options for ferrying astronauts to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The federal agency’s initiative aims to foster collaboration with private industry partners.

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard the Boeing Starliner spacecraft is seen after liftoff Wednesday in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  - Joe Skipper/Reuters

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard the Boeing Starliner spacecraft is seen after liftoff Wednesday in Cape Canaveral, Florida. – Joe Skipper/Reuters

The flight marks only the sixth inaugural flight of a crewed spacecraft in U.S. history, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted in a news conference in May.

“It started with Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo, the space shuttle, then (SpaceX’s) Dragon — and now Starliner,” Nelson said.

Williams also made history as the first woman to fly aboard such a mission.

High goals are a historic flight

“This is another milestone in the extraordinary history of NASA,” Nelson said Wednesday after the launch. “And I want to personally congratulate all the staff who have gone through a lot of trial and tribulation. But they persevered and that’s what we do at NASA. We don’t ship until it’s right.”

The astronauts will spend just over 24 hours traveling to the space station.

After taking off around 12:15 pm ET Thursday, Williams and Wilmore are set to spend eight days living in the orbiting laboratory, joining the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already on board.

Aboard Starliner is a critical pump needed to fix the space station’s urine processor assembly, which failed on May 29.

“That urine processor takes all of the crew’s urine and processes it in the first stage of a water recovery system,” said Dana Weigel, manager for NASA’s International Space Station Program. “It then sends it downstream to a water processor that turns it into drinking water. The station is really designed to be a closed loop.”

Now, the urine must be stored on board in containers, so it cannot arrive at the space station which is expected to be Starliner soon enough.

“On the pump change, we’re going to get that done as soon as possible,” said Joel Montalbano, associate deputy administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “Hopefully we’ll be successful this week. If not, it will be early next week.”

The astronauts will test various aspects of Starliner’s capabilities, including the performance of the spacecraft’s thruster, how their spacesuits function inside the cavity, and manual piloting in case the crew needs to override the spacecraft’s autopilot.

Williams and Wilmore will also test Starliner’s “safe haven” capability, which is designed to offer shelter to the space station crew if there is a problem, according to Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a May 31 news conference. .

When it’s time to go home, the astronauts will return using the same Starliner capsule and parachute to land at one of several designated sites throughout the southwestern United States.

NASA officials shared that astronauts Williams and Wilmore may enjoy a slightly longer stay aboard the station. The earliest possible landing date is June 14th.

“We have a prescribed landing date that goes with this launch date, but I want to emphasize that nobody should get too excited about that date,” said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “We have to have a lot of conditions that are just right before we bring the Starliner home and we’re going to wait until the conditions are right and we’ve met the test objectives before we do that.”

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams have been in quarantine to protect their health since late April.  - Cory S Huston/NASANASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams have been in quarantine to protect their health since late April.  - Cory S Huston/NASA

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams have been in quarantine to protect their health since late April. – Cory S Huston/NASA

The only issue mission teams are evaluating is a system on Starliner called a sublimator, which provides cooling during the launch and landing phase, Stich added.

“What that does is it basically creates an ice block,” he said. “And then as heat is put into that icebox, a little thin layer of that ice turns into vapor and rejects the heat. We used a little more water than we expected.”

The team will evaluate the sublimator data to learn more about how the system is performing.

With years of development, test flight problems and other costly obstacles, Starliner’s path to the launch pad has been delayed. Meanwhile, Boeing’s competitor under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – SpaceX – is the transportation provider for the space agency’s astronauts.

When asked about the relationship between Boeing and SpaceX, which has long been viewed as competition, Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of the Commercial Crew Program for Boeing, said he believes others see it as competition.

“We don’t see it as a competition,” Nappi said. “We have two suppliers that are going up to the International Space Station and SpaceX is up there, and we’re there now as well. So, this is something that NASA has planned and we have made it happen.”

This mission could be the last major milestone before NASA deems the Boeing Starliner spacecraft ready for routine operations to deliver astronauts and cargo to the space station.

Once Starliner is certified, the U.S. will have two ways to get to the International Space Station, which is why the Commercial Crew Program was started in the first place, Nelson said.

“And when we expand our fleet of spacecraft, what we’re doing is extending our reach to the stars,” Nelson said.

Weeks of troubleshooting

Several issues caused the previous crewed launch attempts, on May 6 and June 1, to be scrapped.

Two hours before the launch attempt on May 6, engineers identified a problem with a valve on the second stage, or upper part, of the Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The entire stack, including the rocket and spacecraft, was rolled back from the pad for testing and repairs.

Teams also worked through a small helium leak inside the spacecraft service module, a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system and evaluated the parachutes for the Starliner capsule.

Starliner was just 3 minutes and 50 seconds from liftoff Saturday afternoon, when the ground launch sequencer, or the computer that launched the rocket, triggered an automatic hold.

United Launch Alliance technicians and engineers assessed the ground support equipment over the weekend, examining three large computers housed inside a shelter at the base of the launch pad. All computers are identical, providing triple redundancy to ensure the safe launch of crewed missions.

“Imagine a big rack is a big computer where the functions of the computer as a controller are broken up separately into individual cards or printed circuit boards,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, during a news conference Saturday. . “They’re all independent, but together, it’s an integrated controller.”

The cards inside the computers are responsible for various key systems that must be in place before launch, such as loosening bolts at the bottom of the rocket so that it can be lifted after ignition.

During the last four minutes before the launch, the three computers must communicate and agree with each other. But during Saturday’s countdown, a card on one of the computers was six seconds slower to respond than the other two computers, which indicated something wasn’t right and prompted its automatic hold, according to Bruno.

Over the weekend, engineers assessed the computers, their power supply and network communication between the computers. The team isolated the issue to a single ground power supply within one of the computers, which supplies power to the computer cards responsible for key countdown events – including the replenishment valves for the rocket’s upper stage, which ‘an issue also arose during the countdown, according to an update shared by NASA.

Starliner crews reported no signs of physical damage to the computer, which they removed and replaced with a spare. The other computers and their cards were also evaluated, and all are performing normally as expected, according to the ULA team.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *