Boeing spacecraft carrying two astronauts takes off for a historic journey

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific developments and more.

The third attempt was the charm of Boeing’s Starliner mission after launching its first crewed flight test Wednesday, a milestone a decade in the making.

The long-awaited journey of the new spacecraft with humans on board launched at 10:52 a.m. ET atop an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams ride aboard the Starliner capsule on a journey that will take them to the International Space Station.

Weather conditions were 90% favorable for a launch Wednesday morning, with the only concern being cumulus clouds, the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron said.

The mission, known as the Crew Flight Test, is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft that can rival SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and the United States’ capabilities to transport astronauts to the space station to be expanded under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The federal agency’s initiative aims to promote collaboration with private sector partners.

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard Boeing's Starliner spacecraft is seen after launch Wednesday in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  - Joe Skipper/Reuters

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is seen after launch Wednesday in Cape Canaveral, Florida. – Joe Skipper/Reuters

The flight marks only the sixth inaugural voyage of a manned spacecraft in U.S. history, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted at a news conference in May.

“It started with Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo, the space shuttle, then (SpaceX’s) Dragon – and now Starliner,” Nelson said.

Williams also made history as the first woman to fly such a mission.

Historic flights have lofty goals

“This is another milestone in NASA’s extraordinary history,” Nelson said after the launch Wednesday. “And I would like to give my personal congratulations to the entire team who have gone through many trials. But they had perseverance and that’s what we do at NASA. We only launch when it is right.”

The astronauts will travel to the space station for just over 24 hours.

After docking around 12:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, Williams and Wilmore will spend eight days in the orbiting laboratory, where they will join the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already on board.

On board Starliner is a crucial pump needed to repair the space station’s urine processor, which failed on May 29.

“That urine processor takes all the crew’s urine and processes it in the first step of a water recovery system,” said Dana Weigel, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Program. “It is then sent downstream to a water processor, which turns it into drinking water. The station is really designed as a closed loop.”

Now the urine must be stored in containers on board, so Starliner’s expected arrival at the space station can’t come soon enough.

“As far as the pump change, we’re going to get started on that as quickly as possible,” said Joel Montalbano, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “I hope we can get there this week. If not, it will be early next week.”

The astronauts will test various aspects of Starliner’s capabilities, including the performance of the spacecraft’s thrusters, how their spacesuits function in the capsule and manual controls in case the crew needs to override the spacecraft’s autopilot.

Williams and Wilmore will also test Starliner’s “safe harbor” capability, designed to provide shelter for the space station’s crew if there is a problem, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a May 31 news conference .

When it’s time to go home, the astronauts return using the same Starliner capsule and parachute to land at one of several designated locations in the southwestern United States.

NASA officials said astronauts Williams and Wilmore may enjoy a slightly longer stay aboard the station. The earliest possible landing date is June 14.

“We have a prescribed landing date that goes along with this launch date, but I just want to emphasize that no one should get too excited about that date,” said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “We need to get a lot of conditions just right before we take the Starliner home and we will wait until the conditions are right and we have achieved the test objectives before we do that.”

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams have been in quarantine since late April to protect their health.  -Cory S. Huston/NASANASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams have been in quarantine since late April to protect their health.  -Cory S. Huston/NASA

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) and Suni Williams have been in quarantine since late April to protect their health. -Cory S. Huston/NASA

The one issue mission teams are assessing is a system called a sublimator on Starliner that provides cooling during the launch and landing phases, Stich added.

“What that does is it essentially creates a block of ice,” he said. “And then when heat is conducted into that cooler, a small thin layer of that ice turns into a vapor and that repels the heat. We used a little more water than we expected.”

The team will review the sublimator data to learn more about the system’s operation.

Years of development problems, test flight problems and other costly setbacks have slowed Starliner’s path to the launch pad. Meanwhile, Boeing’s competitor under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – SpaceX – has become the transportation provider for the space agency’s astronauts.

When asked about the relationship between Boeing and SpaceX, which has long been viewed as a rivalry, Mark Nappi, the vice president and program manager of the Commercial Crew Program for Boeing, said he believes others see it as competition.

“We don’t see it as a competition,” Nappi said. “We have two providers that go to the International Space Station and SpaceX is up there, and we are up there now too. So this is something that NASA planned and we accomplished it.”

This mission could be the last major milestone before NASA deems Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft ready for routine operations to deliver astronauts and cargo to the space station.

Once Starliner is certified, the US will have two ways to reach the International Space Station. That’s why the Commercial Crew Program was started in the first place, Nelson said.

“And as we expand our fleet of spacecraft, we expand our reach to the stars,” Nelson said.

Weeks of troubleshooting

A number of problems caused the previous crewed launch attempts, on May 6 and June 1, to be canceled.

Two hours prior to the May 6 launch attempt, engineers discovered a problem with a valve on the second stage, or upper portion, of the Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The entire stack, including the rocket and spacecraft, was rolled back from the launch pad for testing and repairs.

Teams also worked on a small helium leak in the spacecraft’s service module, a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system and assessed the parachutes for the Starliner capsule.

Starliner was just 3 minutes and 50 seconds away from liftoff Saturday afternoon when an automatic stop was activated by the ground launch sequencer, or computer that launches the rocket.

Technicians and engineers from United Launch Alliance this weekend assessed ground support equipment and examined three large computers housed in a shelter at the base of the launch pad. Each computer is the same and provides triple redundancy to ensure the safe launch of manned missions.

“Imagine a large rack that is a large computer, where the functions of the computer as a controller are separated into individual cards or circuit boards,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, during a press conference on Saturday. . “They all stand alone, but together they form an integrated controller.”

The cards in the computers are responsible for several key systems that must occur before a launch, such as loosening bolts at the base of the rocket so that it can take off after ignition.

During the last four minutes before launch, all three computers must communicate with each other and reach an agreement. But during the countdown on Saturday, a card on one of the computers responded six seconds slower than the other two computers, indicating something was wrong and causing an automatic lockout, according to Bruno.

Over the weekend, engineers evaluated the computers, their power supply and the network communications between the computers. The team isolated the problem to a single ground power supply within one of the computers, which provides power to the computer boards responsible for the key countdown events – including the replenishment valves for the rocket’s upper stage, which also caused a problem during the countdown, according to to an update shared by NASA.

Starliner teams reported no signs of physical damage to the computer, which they removed and replaced with a spare computer. The other computers and their maps were also assessed and according to the ULA team, they are all functioning normally as expected.

For more CNN news and newsletters, create an account at

Leave a Comment