How to watch the first crewed flight of Boeing’s highly anticipated Starliner spacecraft

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Boeing’s spaceflight program could reach a major milestone Monday evening with the launch of its Starliner spacecraft, which will — finally — carry two NASA astronauts into orbit.

The mission, called the Crew Flight Test, could depart from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Monday at 10:34 p.m. ET.

According to the space agency, live coverage of the event will be streamed on NASA channels starting Monday at 6:30 PM ET.

The opportunity is a decade in the making – the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft worthy of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Development issues, test flight problems and other costly setbacks have delayed Starliner’s path to the launch pad. Meanwhile, Boeing’s rival under NASA’s commercial crew program – SpaceX – has become the transportation provider for the space agency’s astronauts.

Now NASA and Boeing have finally deemed the Starliner spacecraft ready for its ultimate test: allowing astronauts to test the vehicle in space.

Veteran NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore will be aboard the mission Monday, riding Starliner to the International Space Station for a weeklong stay.

During their flight, Wilmore and Williams will perform a series of tests, including briefly taking control of the autonomous spacecraft and evaluating how the vehicle works for astronauts.

A smooth flight could be a winning moment for Boeing’s spaceflight program and for the company in general, which is in dire straits due to problems with its commercial aircraft division.

Here’s what you need to know about Starliner’s journey before its historic crew test flight.

The human component

Officials at Boeing have tried to make it clear that Starliner is separate from the industry at the company responsible for commercial aircraft. And the Starliner team’s primary interest is ensuring a smooth test mission and crew safety, said Mark Nappi, vice president and Starliner program manager at Boeing.

“We have people flying in this vehicle. We always take that so seriously,” Nappi said during a news briefing last week. “I have spent my entire career in this company and it has always been at the top of the list.”

NASA astronauts Suni Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore pose for a photo after arriving at the Starliner launch site in Florida on April 25, 2024.  -Terry Renna/AP

NASA astronauts Suni Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore pose for a photo after arriving at the Starliner launch site in Florida on April 25, 2024. -Terry Renna/AP

The two Starliner astronauts waited years for the spacecraft to be deemed ready to carry crew members. After several astronauts rotated in and out of assignments for Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, Wilmore received his appointment in 2020. NASA moved Williams to this flight in 2022 after initially assigning her to a later Starliner mission in 2018.

“We’ve had a few launch dates and we said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to go,’” Williams said at a news conference Wednesday. “But now it’s like, oh, five days. It’s finally real, and I have to pinch myself a little to understand that we’re actually going.”

At a news briefing last month, Steve Stich, the program manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said NASA required Boeing and SpaceX to meet a certain threshold regarding the risk that the mission would result in astronaut deaths: 1 in 270.

“Boeing exceeds that number with a loss of 1 in 295 crew members,” he said.

Starliner’s rocky path

Boeing received a NASA contract to build Starliner in 2014, while the space agency selected SpaceX to build its Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA gave the companies deals worth up to $6.8 billion combined, hoping that both Boeing and SpaceX would have their capsules ready to fly as early as 2017.

That expectation did not come true.

SpaceX took longer than planned, flying the first astronaut launch of its Crew Dragon capsule in the summer of 2020. Since then, it has completed 13 missions in orbit for NASA astronauts and paying customers.

But Boeing — despite NASA officials initially believing the Starliner would be ready before SpaceX’s Crew Dragon — faced years of additional delays, setbacks and additional costs that have cost the company more than $1 billion, according to public financial records.

It is striking that the first Starliner test mission, which was carried out without a crew at the end of 2019, was full of missteps. The vehicle failed in orbit, a symptom of software problems, including a coding error that caused an internal clock to be knocked off by 11 hours.

A second unmanned flight test in 2022 revealed additional software issues and issues with some of the vehicle’s thrusters.

These problems delayed the first crewed flight until 2023. But then a new set of problems arose: the spacecraft’s parachutes had some parts that were weaker than expected, and the tape inside the vehicle turned out to be flammable.

Boeing then had to remove more than a mile of that tape and conduct additional tests of the parachutes.

Finally, after a decade of development, NASA and Boeing have released the vehicle to allow astronauts to fly.

‘Not everything will be absolutely perfect’

Williams and Wilmore have taken a measured approach to answering questions about the Starliner spacecraft development issues.

“I understand when you say ‘setback,’” Wilmore said during the recent press conference. “But honestly, with all the discoveries – that’s what we would call it – that we’ve had, they’ve been steps forward.

“It wasn’t a setback, it was progress,” he said. “And our families went through that with us.”

Williams added that she is prepared to go into Monday’s mission with the expectation that minor issues may arise.

“We’re always finding things, and we’re going to find things all the time,” she said Wednesday. “Everything won’t be absolutely perfect when we fly the spacecraft. And that’s actually our goal. We’ve gotten to the point – all of us, a big team – where we feel very safe and comfortable with the way this spacecraft is flying, and we have backup procedures in place in case we need them.”

“We are here,” Williams said, “because we are ready.”

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