Boeing’s Starliner slightly delayed, but ready for launch

Starliner being rolled for its first test flight in November 2019 (Credit Richard Angle)

Boeing and NASA have once again delayed Starliner’s Crewed Flight Test to no earlier than May 1st, 2024.

The launch was originally targeted for mid-April, but this time, scheduling at the International Space Station is the reason for the delay, as the orbiting outpost is fairly busy at the moment.

There are currently 7 vehicles docked at the Space Station, including two Dragon capsules, a Cygnus resupply freighter, and 4 Soyuz capsules (2 Crew, 2 Cargo), so it’s understandable why NASA and Boeing would want to push the Starliner launch just slightly.

Boeing took a major step towards the launch of Starliner’s first crewed flight test when it began fueling the service module and crew capsule. This will enable the capsule to conduct burns to control itself while in orbit.

The capsule assigned to this mission is Spacecraft 3, aka Calypso, which flew the first Orbital Flight Test in 2019 and was unable to make it to the ISS due to numerous issues that arose after separating from the Atlas V second stage.

Starliner takes flight for the first time during OFT-1 in 2019 (Credit: Richard Angle)

For the first Crewed Flight Test, there will be 2 experienced NASA astronauts onboard. Commander Barry Wilmore and Pilot Sunita Williams. They will both be making their 3rd trip to space.

The current pair weren’t the first astronauts assigned to CFT-1, due to the ongoing delays, at various points, 4 other astronauts were assigned to the test flight, including Nicole Mann who ended up switching over to Crew 5 and taking a Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS.

During this most recent delay, Boeing took the time to finish removing the insulating tape that was found to be flammable, finish software reviews, and review a new soft link in the parachute system. The soft link is what connects the main line from the capsule to the risers up to the canopy.

There are currently no items under review that could potentially cause further lengthy delays.

During a recent press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Flight Director Steve Lammers detailed what to expect before the flight.

The crew will perform a dry dress rehearsal, similar to what SpaceX does with Crew Dragon. However, the test will be completed inside United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility, not at the launch pad.

The day before launch, the Atlas V rocket with Starliner stacked on top will be moved to the launch pad. In the last launch attempt, the rocket sat at the launch pad for a few days, enduring Florida thunderstorms, which led to moisture collecting in some of the Service Modules valves, causing a very significant delay to the Starliner program.

Starliner at LC-41 before the first OFT-2 attempt (Credit Richard Angle)

The hatch will be closed 1 hour and 24 minutes prior to launch, with the pad being cleared about with ~50 minutes remaining in the countdown.

This will be the first mission controlled by Houston after lift-off since the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135.

There will be no live video from the capsule during ascent and transit to the ISS, Ed Van Cise, Starliner rendezvous flight director said the system is lacking the connection from the data to a transmission system. The recorded video will be downlinked after the capsule is docked.

The crew will dock with the ISS 24 hours after lift-off after conducting numerous tests of the Starliner systems.

The capsule will stay docked with the Space Station for a minimum of 8 days.

After undocking, the crew will perform more tests ahead of the de-orbit burn and eventual landing in the Western United States.

The capsule will land under parachutes, and the airbags will deploy just before touchdown to provide a soft landing for the crew.

All in all, this mission has been a long time coming for the company. The original contract called for six flights, and with the Atlas V being retired, there are currently no other human-rated launch vehicles (that are compatible) to launch Starliner, and if NASA wants to extend that contract with Boeing, ULA would need to get the approval to launch Starliner on Vulcan.

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Boeing’s Starliner slightly delayed, but ready for launch
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