Watch Boeing launch its Starliner space capsule in do-over flight

On Thursday afternoon, Boeing will launch its passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, to the International Space Station for the second time without people on board. The mission, called OFT-2, is part of an extensive dress rehearsal that will help clear the way for people to ride the vehicle in the future.

Today’s mission is a critical milestone as Boeing works to certify the vehicle for manned spaceflight. Boeing developed Starliner as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative that commissioned private companies to develop spacecraft that could transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA’s other Commercial Crew provider, SpaceX, already regularly brings astronauts to the ISS. But if Boeing’s Starliner is in the mix, NASA gets what it calls “unequal redundancy”: two different transportation options in case one goes out of business.

This is Boeing’s second attempt at the test flight after a previous attempt in 2019. On the first attempt, a series of software glitches and a communications failure prevented the vehicle from entering proper orbit, and Boeing had to get Starliner home early. Another planned launch last summer was scrubbed just hours before launch due to some sticky propellant valves. Now, after years of work to fix these problems, Boeing is ready to try again.

What time does Starliner leave?

Takeoff is scheduled for 6:54 PM ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Planned time: New York: 6:54 PM / San Francisco: 3:54 PM / London: 11:54 PM / Berlin: 12:54 PM / Moscow: 1:54 AM / New Delhi: 4:24 AM / Beijing: 6:54 AM a.m. / Tokyo: 7:54 a.m. / Melbourne: 8:54 a.m.

How can I view the flight?

NASA plans to live stream the flight on the special NASA TV channel, which can be found at YouTube and NASA’s website† Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET.

What can I expect from the mission?

OFT-2 must follow the basic structure of a flight to the International Space Station as if there were people on board. In the interest of realism, engineers have placed a mannequin named Rosie the Rocketeer (named in tribute to Rosie the Riveter) inside the Starliner capsule. The mannequin is equipped with the same blue pressure suit that future Starliner passengers will wear and contains a series of sensors that collect data about the flight. This is actually Rosie’s second flight, as the mannequin also flew for the original OFT mission in 2019.

“We’re also very jealous because this is a human spaceflight, and Rosie the mannequin is the one who gets to take the trip instead of us,” said NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, one of Starliner’s future flyers, during a press conference.

A photo of Rosie the Rocketeer prior to Starliner’s launch attempt last summer
Image: Boeing

Starliner takes off atop an Atlas V rocket manufactured and operated by the United Launch Alliance. After takeoff, the rocket will spend the next 15 minutes propelling the capsule into space. After that first ascent, Starliner will separate from the rocket. But his work is not done yet. About 31 minutes after takeoff, Starliner will fire a series of four thrusters on board to prop itself into the proper orbit needed to reach the International Space Station. It was this maneuver that went wrong in 2019, so all eyes will be watching during this process.

Once Starliner has reached its planned orbit, the capsule will perform a few demonstrations as it approaches the station on Friday, test sensors on the spacecraft and show that the spacecraft can stop on command as it gets closer to the ISS. But the biggest demonstration of all will come when Starliner attempts to dock at the International Space Station. Like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Starliner is equipped with an automatic docking system designed to autonomously maneuver the capsule onto an open docking port on the outside of the ISS.

An Artistic Rendering of Starliner Docking to the International Space Station
Image: Boeing

The docking process is essential to Starliner’s mission, as it is how future astronauts will actually reach the space station. Boeing was also unable to demonstrate docking at its 2019 launch, and both the company and NASA are eager to see it happen this time.

“Obviously the whole mission matters to us, and we’ll learn, but the areas we’re looking at the most because we haven’t exercised it yet is definitely the station link,” Michelle Parker, Boeing vice president and deputy general manager of space and launch, said at a news conference.

Docking is currently scheduled for Friday, May 20 at 7:10 PM ET, with NASA coverage starting at 3:00 PM ET. The crew already on board the ISS will monitor the approach of the capsule. Once Starliner is confirmed, they will open the hatch to the vehicle on Saturday, May 21, which is scheduled for 11:45 a.m. ET. The astronauts will pick up some cargo wrapped in Starliner and bring in additional cargo to return to Earth.

Starliner camps on the ISS for four to five days before disconnecting and starting its journey home. Starliner will fly around the station as it backs off from the ISS and positions itself at a specific point over the Pacific Ocean. Then the craft will re-fire its thrusters, take itself out of orbit and set itself on course for the surface. Unlike SpaceX’ Crew Dragon, Starliner is designed to land on solid ground using a combination of parachutes and airbags to cushion the landing. Boeing has five different locations in the US where Starliner could potentially land, including White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Starliner’s future astronauts include Wilmore, Mike Fincke and Sunita Williams, all of whom will review the various milestones of Boeing mission control and other areas here on Earth. Depending on how this test flight goes, NASA may soon finalize the crew for Starliner’s first manned test flight, dubbed CFT.

But for now, the focus is on OFT-2. “We wouldn’t be here right now if we weren’t sure—certainly—that this would be a successful mission,” Wilmore said.


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