Boeing’s Starliner is heading for the space station, a promising sign for the completion of a long-delayed mission

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Boeing’s spacecraft is heading for the International Space Station, a promising sign that the company will complete a mission it first attempted more than two years ago.

The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is designed to transport NASA astronauts to the space station. But before putting the crew on board, Boeing and NASA want to test the capsule’s ability to get to and from the station.

They first attempted this in December 2019, but a software error discovered after liftoff prevented Starliner from reaching the ISS. Another attempt, in August 2021, was blocked before takeoff because the corroded valves refused to open.

Both hurdles were cleared Thursday when a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket pushed the capsule and its sole occupant — Rosie the Rocketeer — away from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida at 5:54 p.m. CDT. Starliner was on a trajectory to reach the space station Friday around 6:10 p.m. CDT.

The mission, OFT-2, marks Starliner’s second launch. But this should be the first time the capsule (and Rosie) have made it to the space station.

“We’re beyond thrilled to be here,” NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore said at a pre-launch press conference, “and we’re also very, very jealous. Because this is of a manned space flight and Rosie the dummy is the one making the trip for us, but of course that’s part of the evolution of the test.

The next launch should have astronauts on board. But on Thursday, Rosie was strapped into the commander’s seat.

The heavy dummy weighs several hundred pounds and helps balance the spacecraft. This will be especially important when the capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere to land.

Rosie will also collect passenger experience data to help Boeing prepare for its upcoming test flight.

“We really can’t wait for this spacecraft to come home,” said NASA astronaut Suni Williams. “Because that’s when the rest of the work will start and we’ll get ready for the crewed flight test.”

Boeing is developing this spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, where companies (not NASA) own and operate the capsules responsible for ferrying astronauts to the space station. NASA provided funding and expertise and it buys seats as a customer, but the companies designed the spacecraft.

SpaceX is also part of this program and launched its crewed test flight on May 30, 2020. It has since launched four NASA missions – and one private astronaut mission – to the space station. Adding Boeing to the rotation will give NASA more flexibility if one of the companies were to be held up by technical issues.

As Starliner approaches the space station on Friday, ISS astronauts will monitor the capsule and send commands, including a hold command that will pause the Starliner’s approach.

The capsule will also demonstrate its ability to perform an automated retreat and test its vision-based navigation system used to dock autonomously.

“OFT-2 is the second orbital test flight,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program. “The first one (in December 2019) had some demonstrations which were completed with landing and launching, and now OFT-2 is going to focus on the in-between things.”

The capsule will arrive at the station with more than 800 pounds of cargo, including about 500 pounds of food and other supplies for NASA. Boeing is also bringing memorabilia, such as Rosie the Riveter coins and a card signed by Boeing founder Bill Boeing that allowed him to travel to the United States on any United Aircraft and Transport Corp flight. , a precursor to United Airlines.

The capsule will also feature flags or small pennants of 14 historically black colleges and universities.

Starliner will remain docked to the space station for several days. It will then return to Earth, bringing Rosie and nearly 600 pounds of cargo under parachutes. Unlike the SpaceX Crew Dragon which lands in water, Starliner will land on the ground – likely at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

“One of the things that Rosie doesn’t do is she doesn’t breathe,” Williams said. “So we want this spacecraft back so we can start testing the environmental control system with the interaction with people. There’s a lot of work ahead of us before we get to crewed flight.

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