Boeing’s Starliner Capsule Heads to the ISS


Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is en route to the International Space Station, marking a significant milestone for the delayed astronaut transportation initiative. Onboard are NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, who are expected to reach the station on Thursday.

The spacecraft launched at 10:55 a.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, propelled by an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (a Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership). The launch followed numerous delays, initially due to issues with the Atlas rocket and subsequently due to a problem with one of the three ground computers handling the launch countdown.

Though several critical milestones remain for Starliner before the mission can be deemed a success — including docking with the ISS and the safe return of the astronauts — this event represents a major advancement for Boeing’s long-awaited crew transportation program.

If the mission proceeds as planned, Boeing will join Elon Musk’s SpaceX as NASA’s second provider of astronaut transportation. Both companies secured multi-billion-dollar NASA contracts about a decade ago to create a crewed transport service, but Boeing’s project has faced technical setbacks, costing the company over $1.5 billion in overruns. Boeing completed a successful uncrewed mission to the ISS in May 2022, but this marks the first crewed mission.

While Boeing encountered challenges, SpaceX has excelled: Using its Crew Dragon capsule, SpaceX has been ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS since 2020.

Wilmore and Williams will embark on a roughly 26-hour journey to the ISS, with an expected arrival at around 12:15 p.m. EST on Thursday. During the trip, they’ll carry out several flight test objectives to facilitate Starliner’s certification for regular missions. They will demonstrate crew equipment performance from prelaunch through ascent, evaluate Starliner’s thrust performance, test navigation systems, conduct communication checkouts, and assess life support systems.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. Image Credits: Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo / AFP

After Starliner autonomously docks with the space station and the astronauts are onboard, they will conduct further evaluations of the spacecraft’s capabilities, including its potential to serve as a “safe haven” in case of an emergency on the ISS.

Wilmore and Williams are scheduled to stay on the station for approximately a week before reboarding Starliner. The spacecraft is expected to land, aided by parachutes and airbags, somewhere in the southwestern United States within six hours of departure from the ISS.

This mission is the final significant step before Starliner can be certified as a functional crew system, with the first official Starliner mission anticipated in 2025.

Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei covers the space and defense industries. Previously, she covered the public utilities and the power grid for California Energy Markets. You can also find her work at MIT’s Undark Magazine, The Verge, and Discover Magazine. She received an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Aria is based in Austin, Texas.

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