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Boeing will try again to launch Starliner after its previous attempt was scrubbed

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with Boeing's Starliner rolls from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Photo: United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with Boeing's Starliner rolls from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Photo: United Launch Alliance

Boeing hopes to launch its Starliner capsule Thursday on a mission to the International Space Station. It’s designed to carry NASA astronauts, but the last attempt almost ended in disaster due to faulty software settings.

The launch from Cape Canaveral's LC-41 is scheduled for 6:54 p.m. ET and weather, so far, remains favorable.

If this next attempt at an uncrewed test flight is successful, Boeing hopes to begin sending humans to the ISS this fall. But the technology is still untested and there are many questions.

Previous attempts

Boeing's first attempt to launch Starliner occurred back in 2019. Just before dawn on a December morning, a rocket carrying Boeing’s Starliner capsule lit up the Florida Space Coast sky. It looked to be a picture-perfect launch. But in space, something had gone wrong. The computer system was confused.

"We did have some challenges today," said then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine speaking with reporters shortly after that launch from the Kennedy Space Center. "It appears as though the mission elapsed timing system had an error in it. That anomaly resulted in the vehicle believing that the time was different than it actually was."

The capsule’s clock wasn’t working correctly which caused Starliner to fire its engines at the wrong time, using up its fuel and preventing it from getting to the space station. It was a major error.

Boeing and NASA worked to fix the software problem and tried once again to launch the test flight last summer. But while waiting for liftoff, humidity had corroded some of the capsule’s valves. The company called off the flight.

Engineers spent the past 10 months working the valve issue and the company is ready for a redo.

"The Boeing team is prepared and ready" said Boeing's Mark Nappi. "The NASA/Boeing partnership is really strong, and it's a reflection of all the hard work that's been done."

The Starliner will ride to space on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Once in orbit, the computers will demonstrate autonomous docking with the station, perform tests from orbit and the vehicle will then return to Earth after about a week in space. NASA will review the data before certifying it to carry human astronauts.

Need for private rides to the station

After the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA awarded two companies -- SpaceX and Boeing -- contracts to launch NASA astronauts into space. The partnership dubbed Commercial Crew was designed to return human launch capability to the U.S.

About 6 months after Boeing’s failed test flight, NASA’s other partner SpaceX sent the first NASA astronauts to the station. Since then, the company has launched more than a half-dozen human missions to space: five for NASA and two private flights.

Meanwhile, Boeing is still stuck on the ground.

"These delays, the setbacks with Starliner are embarrassing," said space policy analysis and consultant Laura Forczyk. "Not only are they embarrassing, they are expensive."

The NASA agreement with Boeing is what’s called a fixed-priced contract, meaning the agency gave Boeing a set amount of cash to design the system and launch astronauts. With Boeing having issues elsewhere in the company like software problems on its commercial jets the 737 Max, these issues are costing the company money.

"Any extra delays or setbacks, hardware problems or software problems, they need to take that money and eat it," said Forczyk. "Boeing is losing money each time they delay."

The pressure is on

While there's a lot at stake for Boeing, there’s also a lot at stake for NASA.

"This is a really important step in our continued goal of having two U.S. crew transportation capabilities to the ISS," said NASA's Kathy Lueders, head of NASA's human spaceflight program. While SpaceX has been proven to be wildly successful, NASA wants another provider in case something ever happens to SpaceX.

"Robust crew service is really important to our sustained commitment to our research, the science and technology development that we're doing on the ISS," said Lueders.

If all goes well on this Boeing test flight to ISS, NASA astronauts could be on the next Starliner flight later this year -- giving NASA yet another option to get to space.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program.

Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.