Boeing Starliner brings astronaut launches back to the Atlas rocket and Cape Canaveral

The launch of two astronauts on a Boeing commercial spacecraft will be a first for the company, but will also return American human spaceflight to a rocket and launch site that hasn’t been used by crews in more than 50 years.

The Crew Flight Test (CFT) for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule is ready to fly NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams on an eight-day mission to the International Space Station. The launch is scheduled for today (May 6) at 10:34 PM EDT (0234 GMT on May 7).

The highly anticipated launch, which follows two unmanned orbital flight tests in 2019 and 2022 respectively, will see the Starliner flying regular crew rotation missions to the space station from next year.

To reach Earth orbit, the Starliner will fly atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) in Florida. The path is less than seven miles from where the first and last (so far) astronauts launched on Atlas rockets.

Related: How to watch Boeing’s first Starliner astronaut launch on May 6 live online

Spans 60 years

“There’s a bit of history surrounding this mission,” Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president for government and commercial programs, said at a press conference ahead of the launch on Friday (May 3). “In 1962, John Glenn flew the first Atlas and coincidentally, 62 years later, we are flying our 100th Atlas [V] with Butch and Suni on board. So that is very important for our team.”

Originally designed as the United States’ first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Atlas D rocket was modified to launch the first Americans into orbit. Four NASA astronauts flew on the Convair booster, including Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter “Wally” Schirra and Gordon Cooper.

close-up photo of a white rocket launching into a blue sky

close-up photo of a white rocket launching into a blue sky

On May 15, 1963, Cooper’s Mercury-Atlas 9 mission took off from Complex 14, just south and slightly east of the Starliner platform at SLC-41.

“It sure was beautiful,” Cooper said as he caught his last view of his ride to orbit as it fell away from “Faith 7,” his Mercury spacecraft. “It was a very bright silver in color, with an icy white band around the center portion of it.”

Although they belong to the same rocket family, the Atlas D and the Atlas V have little or nothing in common other than their names. The modern Atlas, designed by Lockheed Martin, is powered by a Russian RD-180 engine on the first stage and a Centaur upper stage.

Introduced in 2002, the Atlas V is the United States’ longest-serving active missile. The Starliner will be one of the vehicle’s last payloads, as it will be retired after sixteen more flights to make way for ULA’s new Vulcan heavy-lift rocket.

ULA has modified the Atlas V to fly crewed Starliner missions.

“To do this, we designed two different technologies to support human spaceflight,” Wentz said. “We have placed an emergency detection system on board that monitors all of the vehicle’s systems, and in the event that one of those systems had an abnormal performance and the crew had to perform an abort, this will essentially automatically trigger an abort. breaking down.”

“Also, [we built] a twin-engine Centaur, which actually brings it back from a heritage vehicle we flew before, and from what we fly on Vulcan in the future,” he said.

Related: Facts about ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket

Back to the Cape (or not?)

The launch of Boeing’s Starliner CFT mission will not only return the Atlas to the family of human-rated rockets, but also be the first crewed flight to leave Earth from the same side of the Cape from which all astronauts flew before the first flight. missions to the moon.

“Another historical fact,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during Friday’s briefing. “This is the first time since the launch of Apollo 7 that a human astronaut launch has actually taken place at what used to be the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and is now, of course, the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.”

Florida’s Space Coast, as managed by the Eastern Range, is divided into two major launch sites: the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (as it is known today), which dates to 1949, and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, founded in 1962 On October 11, 1968, NASA’s first crewed Apollo mission, Apollo 7, launched from Complex 34 into orbit. It was the last time (to date) that a crew took off from a platform on the Cape side of the mountain range.

(All subsequent astronaut launches, between 1968 and today, were from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39 A and B pads.)

According to journalistic dateline and common understanding, SLC-41 is a Cape Canaveral launch pad, but the distinction is less clear.

A NASA land use map shows that Space Launch Complex-41, indicated by a red arrow, is on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center.A NASA land use map shows that Space Launch Complex-41, indicated by a red arrow, is on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center.

A NASA land use map shows that Space Launch Complex-41, indicated by a red arrow, is on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center.


— Boeing Starliner rolls out to the launch pad for the first astronaut flight on May 6 (photos)

— After an ’emotional roller coaster’, NASA astronauts are ready to fly the Boeing Starliner

— Their other vehicle is the Starliner: Boeing’s first crew to take the Astrovan II to the launch pad

While ULA leased the platform and associated facilities from the Air Force, the land on which both sit is part of the Kennedy Space Center. A land use map published by NASA shows SLC-41 on the agency’s property and a “notice of availability” offers the launch site for vertical launch operations.

Does Starliner launch from the Cape or Kennedy? An analogy for the situation could be the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Although the building’s footprint is in Manhattan, the land it occupies and the facilities above it are not part of New York or the United States.

Similarly, the LC-41 is located on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center, but the Atlas path is the responsibility of the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

“NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center and the Department of the Air Force have had a cooperative relationship for the use of Launch Complex 41 for more than 25 years. This collaboration has been mutually beneficial to both federal partners for many years,” a release said. NASA statement. “The current agreement came into effect on January 1, 2024 and can be extended annually for a further nine years. This collaboration will continue to benefit NASA and the U.S. Air Force as both agencies strive to complete their missions in the most efficient manner possible.”

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