Home Tech Boeing’s Starliner finally ready to launch a NASA crew into space

Boeing’s Starliner finally ready to launch a NASA crew into space

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Boeing's Starliner finally ready to launch a NASA crew into space

“It fits with the general narrative that Boeing has lost its way,” McDowell says.

Starliner, like Crew Dragon, is a capsule-shaped spacecraft like the old Apollo missions. Capable of carrying up to seven astronauts, the ship is largely autonomous and only requires major intervention in the event of an emergency. During the test mission that begins tonight, Wilmore and Williams will test this eventuality, deliberately diverting the spacecraft off course to ensure they can get back on track manually, as well as evaluating the spacecraft’s overall navigation and life support systems. . While docked at the space station, the vehicle will undergo further testing, including practicing using it as a lifeboat in case astronauts need to evacuate the ISS.

Starliner is reusable and Boeing says it can fly up to 10 missions. The spacecraft has no bathroom, unlike the Crew Dragon, and has about the same habitable volume as an SUV, making the climb to and from orbit relatively cozy. It has physical hand controls and switches for astronauts to control the spacecraft, unlike the touch screens used within Crew Dragon. Upon returning home, a heat shield protects occupants from temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before the vehicle descends by parachute and eventually lands, with the help of airbags to cushion the fall, at one of several landing sites. in the desert. US.

Boeing has a contract with NASA to launch Starliner six times to the ISS after this test mission, each time carrying four or five astronauts along with cargo for six-month stays aboard the station. The spacecraft will alternate its missions with Crew Dragon, one launching around February and another around August each year. Having that redundancy is enormously beneficial, says Steven Siceloff, a public affairs specialist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “This way, if a technical problem arises with a vehicle, it doesn’t mean the space station will be alone for a while,” he says. “It means there are alternatives.”

Laura Forczyk, founder of space consultancy Astralytical, notes that redundancy is “especially important now because of Russia’s unreliability.” NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos continue to cooperate on the ISS program, including seat swapping between the Russian Soyuz vehicle, Crew Dragon and now Starliner, despite the bitter political situation between the two nations.

But beyond these six missions, Boeing has no public flights planned for Starliner. “If this were SpaceX, we would already have Musk talking about three or four contracts he had with famous people,” McDowell says. With the ISS also ready to be exorbitant in 2030, this could mean that Starliner, despite a decade of development and billions of dollars spent, faces the prospect of flying only a few times. “We don’t know if Boeing has the capability to conduct additional commercial missions at this time,” Forczyk says.

NASA has been trying to spur the development of new commercial space stations, much like this commercial crew program, in the hopes that they can fill the orbital research gap that will be left when the ISS ends. These commercial stations could be destinations for Starliner and Crew Dragon, if they come to fruition, but the exact appetite for this endeavor remains uncertain. “Is there enough of a market to support two entities doing this?” McDowell says. “I remain skeptical of commercial space stations. But if they are successful, you will need multiple options to get on and off.”

Before dealing with that future, Boeing will simply wait for a smooth and successful first crewed Starliner flight. Once it is finally in the skies with humans on board, the spacecraft will be able to begin playing the role it has long been touted for.

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