Starliner was set to launch Tuesday on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 1:20 p.m. from Space Launch Complex 41 in Cape Canaveral but due to a technical issue, the launch attempt was scrubbed.
Boeing has been developing Starliner with the help of funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which selected the aerospace giant and SpaceX to fly agency astronauts to and from the orbiting lab. Boeing, under a $4.2 billion contract, launched its Starliner on an unpiloted test flight December 20, 2019, but plans to dock with the space station were derailed by software problems. Company managers are counting on this week’s second test flight to finally clear the way for piloted missions.
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While the test flight is uncrewed, an anthropometric dummy dubbed “Rosie the Rocketeer” will be aboard the Starliner when it launches. The 180-pound test device will sit in the commander’s seat of the capsule for the test flight, and its sensors will be used to collect data on how the launch will impact eventual human passengers. The model human was named after the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter, and is meant to honor women pioneers in aerospace. The test device is clad in the iconic red polka-dot bandana.
Boeing’s orbital flight test, or OFT-2, will send the spacecraft on a journey to catch up with the International Space Station. Starliner will autonomously dock, spend several days at the ISS and then undock returning to Earth, landing in New Mexico. During the first OFT the spacecraft launched but had to return to Earth after a software issue. This time, Boeing managers hope to test the end-to-end mission profile, including the docking.
The Starliner mission is supposed to be a demonstration flight to show NASA that the capsule is ready to transport people to and from the space station. It is unclear when this will happen. Boeing previously had said it hopes to transport astronauts later this year.
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Starliner should reach its preliminary orbit about 31 minutes after liftoff. After the orbit insertion maneuver, the spacecraft will begin a 24-hour orbital chase to catch up with the International Space Station for rendezvous and docking.
About 18 hours after Starliner docks, the Expedition 65 astronauts onboard the space station will open the hatch and enter the Starliner vehicle for an inspection. NASA has not yet announced a new schedule for hatch opening, but expect that moment, too, will stream live on NASA’s channels.
The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), will be a crucial milestone for Boeing, which was unable to reach that destination with Starliner’s first test flight in December 2019. After completing a thorough investigation in July 2020, Boeing and NASA implemented 80 “corrective actions” to prepare Starliner for a do-over of the OFT mission.
Boeing and NASA had originally aimed to launch Starliner’s Orbital Test Flight 2 (OFT-2), a crucial uncrewed trial mission to the International Space Station (ISS), from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on July 30. NASA was set to carry live coverage of the uncrewed mission starting at 12:30 p.m. ET Tuesday. It’s part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, in which the space agency tapped the private sector to help with missions in low-Earth orbit.
On Monday, the Starliner spacecraft and a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket were rolled out on to the launch pad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station ahead of Tuesday’s liftoff. Meteorologists with the U.S. Space Force 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60% chance of favorable weather for launch day. On July 29, NASA and Boeing announced that they would stand down from the July 30 launch attempt, postponing to Aug. 3.
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The decision came as NASA and Roscosmos evaluated a situation on the International Space Station involving the newly arrived Nauka module unexpectedly firing its thrusters, briefly interfering with the station’s orientation. Then on Aug. 3, NASA and Boeing decided to stand down from backup launch opportunities on both Aug. 3 and Aug. 4, as officials discovered a valve issue on the Starliner spacecraft. The next available launch window has not yet been announced.
The preflight checks revealed 13 stuck valves in Starliner’s service module, nixing that liftoff plan. The valve issue is with Starliner, not its corresponding Atlas V rocket developed by the United Launch Alliance. “Atlas and the pad are fine,” tweeted Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA. Earlier in the day, mission teams detected indications that not all valves were in the proper configuration needed for launch.
Engineers are still troubleshooting the Starliner valve problem. That fact, combined with a busy launch schedule over the coming weeks and months, could well push OFT-2 into 2022, NASA officials said.
“We’re not proceeding with Starliner launch tomorrow,” Boeing said in a tweet, hours after the company said it discovered an “unexpected valve” problem that stopped liftoff from occurring as scheduled early in the afternoon. It’s not immediately clear when the next launch opportunity will be.
Since then, Boeing has spent at least $410 million to make software corrections. NASA also played a more hands-on role to get the space taxi in shape. For Boeing, it was an embarrassing delay. The company had already waited more than 19 months for Tuesday’s launch, a redo of a December 2019 test flight that failed when, after a successful liftoff, a software issue sent the capsule into the wrong orbit and forced Boeing to call it back home.
In the months since that failed mission, SpaceX, Boeing’s rival and the other company under contract with NASA to fly astronauts to the space station, has made three successful crewed flights.
SpaceX has already launched two operational crewed missions to the ISS with its Crew Dragon capsule and is gearing up to launch another one next month. But Starliner still needs to ace an uncrewed trip to the station before it can carry astronauts. SpaceX, under a $2.6 billion NASA contract, launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft on a successful unpiloted test flight in 2019 and a piloted test flight last year. Since then, the California rocket builder has launched two operational flights to the space station carrying two long-duration crews to the outpost.