Launch of the Boeing Starliner: NASA astronauts take off

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The third attempt was the charm for Boeing’s Starliner mission after launching its first crewed flight test Wednesday, a milestone that was a decade in the making.

The new spacecraft’s highly anticipated journey with humans on board lifted off atop an Atlas V rocket at 10:52 a.m. ET from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida.

Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams board the Starliner capsule for a journey to the International Space Station.

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

The mission, known as the Crew Flight Test, is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft capable of rivaling SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and expanding the United States’ options for transporting astronauts to the space station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The federal agency’s initiative aims to promote collaboration with private industry partners.

Joe Skipper/Reuters

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is seen after liftoff Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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

“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 participate in such a mission.

“This is another important milestone in this extraordinary NASA story,” Nelson said Wednesday after the launch. “And I want to personally congratulate the entire team who have been through a lot of trials and tribulations. But they showed perseverance and that’s what we do at NASA. We don’t launch until it’s perfect.

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

After docking around 12:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, Williams and Wilmore are expected to spend eight days in the orbiting laboratory, joining the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already on board.

On board the Starliner is a crucial pump needed to repair the space station’s urine processing assembly, which failed on May 29.

“This urine processor takes all of the crew’s urine and processes it in the first stage of a water reclamation system,” said Dana Weigel, International Space Station program manager. NASA. “It then sends it downstream to a water transformer which turns it into drinking water. The resort is truly designed to be a closed loop.

Now urine must be stored onboard in containers, so Starliner’s planned arrival at the space station can’t come soon enough.

“As far as the pump change, we’ll get to that as soon as possible,” said Joel Montalbano, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “I hope we get there this week.” Otherwise, it will be early next week.

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

Williams and Wilmore will also test Starliner’s “shelter” capability, designed to provide shelter for the space station crew in the event of a problem, according to Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during the a press conference on May 31.

When it is time to return home, the astronauts will return using the same Starliner capsule and parachute to land in one of several designated locations in the southwest United States.

NASA officials have indicated that astronauts Williams and Wilmore may benefit from a slightly extended stay aboard the station. The earliest possible landing date is June 14.

“We have a prescribed landing date that goes along with that launch date, but I just want to emphasize that no one should get too excited about that date,” said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate. The NASA. “We need to have a lot of ideal conditions before we bring the Starliner home and we’re going to wait until the conditions are good and we’ve met the test goals before we do that.”

Cory S. Huston/NASA

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

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

“It basically creates a block of ice,” he said. “And then, as the heat passes through that cooler, a little thin layer of ice turns to vapor and rejects the heat. We used a little more water than expected.

The team will evaluate data from the sublimator to learn more about how the system works.

Years of development delays, test flight problems and other costly setbacks have slowed Starliner’s path to the launch pad. Meanwhile, Boeing’s competitor in NASA’s commercial crew program – SpaceX – has become the go-to transportation provider for the space agency’s astronauts.

Asked about the relationship between Boeing and SpaceX, long considered a rivalry, Mark Nappi, vice president and director of the Commercial Crew Program for Boeing, said he thought others saw it as competition.

“We don’t view this as a competition,” Nappi said. “We have two providers that go up to the International Space Station and SpaceX is up there, and we’re up there now as well. So this is something that NASA planned and we achieved. »

The mission could be the last major step before NASA considers Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft ready for routine operations to deliver astronauts and cargo to the space station.

Once Starliner is certified, the United States will have two ways to reach the International Space Station, which is why the commercial crew program was launched, Nelson said.

“And when we expand our fleet of spacecraft, we expand our reach to the stars,” Nelson said.

A number of problems led to the failure of previous crewed launch attempts on May 6 and June 1.

Two hours before the May 6 launch attempt, 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 removed from the launch pad for testing and repair.

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

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

United Launch Alliance technicians and engineers evaluated ground support equipment over the weekend, examining three large computers housed in a shelter at the base of the launch pad. Each computer is identical, providing triple redundancy to ensure the safe launch of crewed missions.

“Imagine a large rack that is a large computer in which the functions of the computer as a controller are divided separately into individual boards or circuit boards,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, during a press conference on Saturday. . “They are all self-contained, but together they form an integrated controller. »

The boards inside the computers are responsible for different key systems that must be activated before a launch, such as loosening bolts at the base of the rocket so it can take off after ignition.

During the last four minutes before launch, the three computers must communicate and hear each other. But during Saturday’s countdown, a card on one of the computers reacted six seconds slower than the other two computers, indicating something was wrong and triggering an automatic hold, according to Bruno.

Over the weekend, engineers evaluated the computers, their power supply, and network communications between the computers. The team isolated the problem to a single ground power supply in one of the computers, which powers computer boards responsible for key countdown events, including the rocket’s upper stage resupply valves, which also caused an issue 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 functioning normally as expected, according to the ULA team.

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