Boeing launched its Starliner spacecraft, designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, on an uncrewed test mission toward the orbiting outpost Thursday evening. After two prior attempts to complete such a mission failed, Boeing’s goal is to prove the spacecraft can dock with the ISS. It must succeed before it can move on to missions with people on board.
The spacecraft took to the skies at 6:54 pm ET Thursday, riding atop an Atlas V rocket that launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. After the rocket delivered the capsule into orbit, the spacecraft fired up its own thrusters to orient it in the right direction. Boeing officials confirmed the Starliner’s “orbital insertion” — a sign the spacecraft is on the right path — about half an hour after liftoff.
But during a post-launch briefing, officials revealed that the thrusters didn’t work exactly as intended.
“We had two to thrusters fail,” Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Starliner program, said. “The first one that fired, it fired for a second and then it shut down. The flight control system did was what it’s supposed to, and it turned it over to the second thruster.”
That thruster then fired for only about 25 seconds before shutting down, according to Nappi. The flight control system again took over and kicked on a third thruster, which fired as intended.
“The system is designed to be redundant and it preformed like it was supposed to,” Nappi told reporters Thursday night.
The issue is not expected to impact the overall mission, Nappi said.
On board this flight are some supplies for the astronauts already on board the ISS as well as a spacesuit-clad mannequin, named Rosie, after the World War II-era Rosie the Riveter.
Starliner has proven a difficult program for Boeing, which originally hoped the spacecraft would be operational in 2017 but has been plagued by delays and development hangups. The first attempt of this test flight, called OFT-1, in 2019 was cut short because of an issue with the Starliner’s onboard clock. The error caused the thrusters onboard the capsule to misfire, knocking it off course, and officials decided to bring the spacecraft back home rather than continue the mission. It took more than a year to root out that issue and a series of other software problems.
More recently, the Starliner has been beleaguered by valve issues. When the spacecraft was rolled out to the launch pad in August of 2021, a pre-flight check revealed that key valves had been stuck in place, and engineers weren’t able to immediately troubleshoot the issue.
Eventually the capsule had to be rolled back from the launch pad. When engineers were not able to fix it at the site, it ultimately had to be taken all the way back to Boeing’s factory for more thorough troubleshooting.
The valves have since become an ongoing source of contention for the company. According to a recent report from Reuters, the subcontractor that manufactures the valves, Alabama-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, has been at odds with Boeing over the root cause of the valve issue.
Boeing and NASA disagree, according to the report and comments from NASA officials during recent press conferences.
Their investigation pointed to moisture getting into the valves and causing “corrosion” and “binding,” Boeing vice president and Starliner program manager, Mark Nappi, said at a press conference last week. That led the company to devise a short-term solution, creating a purge system, which involves a small bag, designed to keep out corrosion-causing moisture. NASA and Boeing say they’re comfortable with this solution.
“We’re in really good shape to go fly that system,” NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said last week.
But that may not be the end of it. Boeing revealed last week that it may ultimately have to redesign the valves.
“There’s a little bit of additional testing that we want to go do, and based on those results, we’ll solidify what kind of changes we’ll make in the future,” Nappi said. “We’ll probably know more in the coming months.”
If Boeing does move forward with a more extensive redesign of the valves, it’s not clear how long that would take or if it could further delay Boeing’s first astronaut mission, which, at this point, is years behind schedule. The hangups with Starliner have also cost the company about half a billion dollars, according to public documents.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, once thought to be the underdog competitor in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has already launched five astronaut missions for NASA as well as two tourism missions. The inaugural astronaut launch of its vehicle, the Crew Dragon, became the first to carry astronauts to orbit from US soil since the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011.