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The long, thorny history of Boeing's Starliner spaceship

The long, thorny history of Boeing's Starliner spaceship

If someone tells NASA A decade ago SpaceX Boeing will be the first to develop a new ride for astronauts to the International Space Station. the location The agency must have chucked the man out of the room.

In 2014, NASA awarded the two companies a contract to build the spacecraft. SpaceX, considered a start-up at the time, not only got its spacecraft to the finish line first, but also carried 50 people into orbit, while Boeing continued to toil. Starliner, the company's competing project that is yet to be confirmed. Since SpaceX Crew Dragon Entering service in 2020, Boeing has played a veritable game of Whac-A-Mole trying to solve one engineering problem after another, most recently flammable interior tape and parachute lines that meet safety standards. Does not meet.

Why the legacy company struggled with the spacecraft and faced delays is not all that clear. The answers from Boeing leaders have been surprisingly vague at times.

“There were a lot of things we had to overcome along the way, so I can't pick one thing that I would point to,” said Mark Nappi, the company's program manager for Starliner. “It's a typical design and development type of program, and we've done a good job getting us to this point.”

But soon Boeing There will be an opportunity for this in the story of redemption. For the first time, NASA astronauts will fly into orbit inside a spacecraft. Test pilots Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Sunny” Williams, who have each spent six months in space, will pilot Starliner to the station, a lab about 250 miles above Earth.

Launched atop an Atlas V rocket. Scheduled for the night of May 6 From the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Barring bad weather or other last-minute disruptions, the spacecraft could lift off as soon as 10:34 pm ET.

“If something happens to the Dragon, God forbid, we're back for rides from the Russians. I'm not sure the American public has the stomach for that.”

The crew will spend about eight days on the station, checking all the spacecraft's systems, before the ride returns home. Instead of launching astronauts into the ocean like SpaceX, Boeing will take them home to the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. A system of parachutes and airbags would prevent a desert landing of the capsule.

NASA trusts Boeing.

Although there has been a harrowing incident involving a panel blown mid-air by an airplane. Ruined Boeing's name. Recently, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was confident about the company's challenges. Aircraft distribution There was no concern for the spacecraft overseen by the company's Defense and Space Division.

“It's a clean ship, and it's ready to launch,” he said.

The Starliner spacecraft successfully landed in the New Mexico desert during an uncrewed test.
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Despite Starliner's early challenges, Wilmore and Williams said they were unfazed by the series of accidents and failures.

“If we can just go back three years and talk about the capabilities of the spacecraft, what it was then, as envisioned, and then where it is now, after these discoveries and all these After the fixes to fix the issues that we got, it's really moving forward,” Wilmore told Mashable during a news conference this week.

Williams added that he had spoken with his family through the concerned headlines.

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“I think they're happy and proud that we've been a part of the process of fixing all of this,” he said.

NASA crews are preparing for the Starliner launch.

NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Sunny” Williams will be the first people to fly inside the Boeing Starliner.
Credit: Paul Hennessy / Anadolu via Getty Images

Why NASA Outsourced Spacecraft Construction

Ten years ago, NASA hired a billionaire. Elon Musk’s relatively new rocket company and Boeing, which is paying SpaceX just $2.6 billion and the latter $4.2 billion, to build the spacecraft. The plan was to create a commercial space taxi market to transport astronauts to the station.

And giving Boeing a hefty contract made sense: It had already started some work on a spacecraft, and the contractor is steeped in NASA's history of human space exploration, beginning with Project Mercury. Those close ties were reiterated as recently as a week ago by Dana Weigel, program manager for NASA's International Space Station, who reminded reporters of Boeing's role in the space station.

“This is not the only Boeing-built spacecraft we will operate from Mission Control in Houston,” he said. “We're looking forward to (Starliner), but we're also proud to operate the ISS, the longest continuously operated spacecraft in human history.”

Starliner aboard an Atlas V rocket

Starliner will be launched with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA via Getty Images

Once the agency retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA was forced to tag along Russian Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan to carry crews into space. It might have been fine, but America was paying the price. $86 million per ride

“We don't have friendly relations with Russia, especially recently, and the head of their space agency said, 'Well, NASA can get itself a big trampoline,'” Sven Bilén, at Penn State. professor of aerospace engineering, told Mashable. “As an American, it was, to me, an embarrassment for us not to be able to go into space with our own spacecraft.”

need of Russia will take Americans into space. 2020 ended when SpaceX's Crew Dragon passed all of its tests for certification, but NASA never intended to put all of its eggs in Musk's basket. After the Columbia disaster, it took the US 2.5 years to return to spaceflight. The agency requires at least two vendors, so there's always a backup if one is grounded for any reason, even as the space station program nears retirement in 2031.

Butch Wilmore rehearses for a Starliner launch.

Barry “Butch” Wilmore is the commander of the first crewed flight for the Starliner spacecraft.
Credit: NASA

The need for a plan B became clear last year when A leak at the station Forced the space agency to consider an emergency situation of loading all astronauts into a SpaceX spacecraft to get home, should an emergency evacuation be necessary.

“If something happens to the dragon, god forbid, then we're back for rides from the Russians,” Blaine said. “I'm not sure the American people have the stomach for that.”

Starliner's engineering problems and delays

The first Starliner flight carrying astronauts was actually slated for launch seven years ago. Almost two years later, in December 2019, Boeing was ready to send an empty Starliner to the station for its first uncrewed trip. However, the spacecraft never reached the station, due to a software glitch that stuck it. wrong orbitand returned to Earth without completing its mission.

Sunny Williams is preparing for the Starliner launch.

Sunita “Sunny” Williams, an astronaut and test pilot, will fly the Starliner for the first time.
Credit: NASA

After seven months of investigation, NASA ordered 80. Corrective measures for Boeing before it could fly the Starliner again. Meanwhile, SpaceX was completing a crew test that Boeing had to do before Monday.

The problems just continued. Boeing began another unmanned test flight and prepared for a launch in 2021 after engineers found more than a dozen corroded valves in the propulsion system. Replacing these parts allowed operations to resume by May 2022.

Starliner's second space flight was free of these major problems, but the series of hardware problems was not over. Before Boeing was going to test the spacecraft with astronauts, more problems arose During the reviews In 2023, including an additional one is causing even more delays. Drop test For a new parachute system. The team also removed and replaced about a mile of flammable tape covering the spacecraft's internal wiring, Nappi said.

NASA is launching an unmanned Boeing Starliner in 2022.

A non-crewed Starliner successfully launched and flew in 2022.
Credit: Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

NASA officials said that despite previous problems that have slowed Starliner's progress, the spacecraft has been rigorously tested. Preparation for launch. Associate Administrator Jim Frey emphasized that the lives of Williams and Wilmore, as well as the other astronauts on the station, were paramount.

“We don't take it lightly at all,” he said.

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