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An uncrewed Boeing Starliner capsule is en route to the International Space Station after launching atop a powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket Thursday evening.
The long-awaited Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2 mission, a redo of the 2019 flight that failed to reach the ISS, lifted off at 6:54 pm EDT from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The capsule carrying a test dummy and about 800 pounds of cargo is expected to dock with the ISS just after 7 pm EDT Friday, May 20
It will spend the following five days in space barring any undocking delays caused by weather at its landing site in New Mexico. Once undocked, it will return to Earth for landing under a parachute canopy at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range.
“We’re going to take this one step at a time. It’s a NASA launch and re-entry,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator of space operations, during a briefing with reporters.
The OFT-2 mission test objectives remain largely the same as during Starliner’s first orbital flight test in December 2019. Shortly after Starliner reached orbit, it suffered a software bug that required a forfeited opportunity to rendezvous with the ISS and had to abort to the New Mexico landing site ahead of schedule.
In an effort to achieve NASA certification and human-rate Starliner, Boeing has spent over half a billion dollars rectifying and mitigating severe missteps since 2019.
“We’ve had a chance to reevaluate a few things on the capsule. So we have a few tweaks to the procedures for the ISS crew,” NASA astronaut Mike Fincke told reporters this week. “It’s pretty much the same mission, from the crew perspective and from the flight test perspective.”
Fincke works with Boeing and the Starliner team and serves as joint operations commander for the Starliner Crewed Flight Test that will follow OFT-2. He did say, however, there would also be “other testing objectives and more attention to the valves and the propulsion system.”
“Those were never really part of the original flight test objectives,” he said.
These add-on testing objectives are necessary because an attempt to launch the redo OFT-2 in August 2021 was foiled when the launch was scrubbed before Starliner even had a chance to leave the ground. As it waited out several days of delays on the launch pad, the humid summer air caused corrosion to some of the spacecraft’s propulsion system valves.
Boeing opted to remove the spacecraft from its Atlas V booster and return it to its factory at Kennedy Space Center. Teams investigated the issue and ultimately decided to replace the capsule’s entire service module.
Boeing devised a short-term fix for the valve corrosion problem to get Starliner back to the launch pad for Thursday’s liftoff. A more substantial long-term solution is still to be determined but will be applied to all future Starliner capsules.
The capsule might be uncrewed, but there is one occupant: “Rosie the Rocketeer,” a dummy in the commander’s seat with sensors that will record the effects of flight on future astronauts. NASA officials are eager for the capsule and Rosie to dock with the ISS for the first time.
“We’re going to be paying attention to the artificial vision system called Vesta, which we didn’t get a chance to see in action on the first orbital flight test,” said Fincke. “We’re going to see how the automated docking system works with the artificial vision system all the way through the NASA docking system.”
If all goes to plan, Starliner should line up with the ISS for an autonomous docking about 24 hours after launch.
“(It’s) the first time we’re using our NASA docking system on the new (international docking adapter) so a very, very exciting time,” Lueders said.
On Saturday, NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission currently aboard the ISS will “get inside Starliner and get some flight tests objectives done for us and take some of the cargo out,” Fincke said.
NASA astronaut Suni Williams already has her sights set on the Crewed Flight Test that will send two or three NASA astronauts to the ISS sometime before mid-2023.
“We’re ready for this spacecraft to go up to the space station, be really successful, and come back to have a nice soft landing,” she said during a pre-flight briefing. “We’re really looking forward to the spacecraft coming home because that’s when the rest of the work will start to happen and we’ll get ready for the crewed flight test.”
“We want the spacecraft to get back so we can start testing the environmental control system with the interaction with people,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us before we get to the crewed flight. But we’re chomping at the bit.”
Jamie Groh is a space reporter for Florida Today. You can contact her at JGroh@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.