Boeing Launches Starliner Commercial Crew Capsule

By Emily Cavanagh | December 20, 2019

By Emily Cavanagh | November 20, 2019

Artistic rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft flying over Florida

Launch Updates

9:46AM           “The orbit we’re in today, we chose it because it allows us to return to White Sands in 48 hours …. The spacecraft looks healthy, were in an orbit we like and were looking at landing… we have about 75 percent of the flight test propellant available and the team will figure out what test objectives can be achieved while ensuring safe return to White Sands” said Boeing Vice President of Space Launch, Jim Chilton on Starliner at the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Post-Launch News Conference. As of now, Starliner is planned to land at White Sands 12/22/19 in good condition. The ability to refurbish the craft for future flights looks likely.

9:40AM           “Had we had a crew in the spacecraft … the crew would have been safe and had they been in there, we could be docking with the International Space Station tomorrow” – said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on how a crew would have been able to overcome the error that caused today’s Starliner anomaly and keep the flight on track to dock with the ISS. Today’s Starliner test will not successfully dock with the ISS.

9:00AM           The Boeing CST-100 Starliner Post-Launch News Conference will now be held at 9:30AM EST, according to NASA Live TV.

8:45AM           “Starliner had a Mission Elapsed Time (MET) anomaly causing the spacecraft to believe that it was in an orbital insertion burn, when it was not. More information at 9am ET. Because Starliner believed it was in an orbital insertion burn (or that the burn was complete), the dead bands were reduced and the spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control. This precluded the Space Station rendezvous. We are getting good burns and are elevating the orbit of the spacecraft.” Tweeted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

7:58AM          “Despite launching successfully on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from SLC-41, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is not in its planned orbit. The spacecraft currently is in a stable configuration while flight controllers are troubleshooting” said a statement released by the NASA Commercial Crew Program on their official Twitter page.

As 2019 comes to an end, the commercial spaceflight industry has hit a major milestone: Boeing has launched the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for the first time. The launch of this unpiloted flight kicks off what Boeing hopes to be a bright future as a NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) industry partner, as they plan to launch the first manned mission on Starliner next year.

Boeing and SpaceX are currently working with NASA and other industry partners to create commercial crew transportation spacecrafts capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as a part of the Commercial Crew Program.

NASA’s CCP hopes to see U.S. astronauts traveling to the International Space Station (ISS) on privately operated vehicles by 2020. When accomplished, these commercial flights will be a major turning point for NASA, which has been dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS since the agency’s space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. While the U.S. plans to return to the Moon by 2024 and journey on to Mars, NASA hopes that commercial spaceflight will provide the reliability and safety necessary for future missions.

ULA (a venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin) manufactured the Atlas V rocket on which Starliner will be attached. Once the Atlas V launches Starliner into orbit, the capsule will meet with the ISS and autonomously dock on an available port. The purpose of the Starliner orbital flight test is to collect valuable data on the end-to-end performance of both the Atlas V rocket and Starliner spacecraft, as well as in-orbit, docking, landing, and ground station operations data. After a short stay, Starliner will return to Earth and land in the Western United States. The spacecraft will utilize a combination of parachutes and airbags to land this initial test gently on solid ground.

United Launch Alliance expendable launch system Atlas V Rocket prepared to launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Walter Scriptunas II / ULA

While it is true that no humans flew on this initial test flight, there was in fact one passenger on board: Rosie, a flight-test dummy named after Rosie the Riveter. For her trip to the ISS, Rosie will wear Boeing’s newly designed blue pressure suit. These new pressure suits are lighter and more flexible than the suits utilized in the Apollo Missions. The suit design comes with gloves that are touch screen sensitive and visors and helmets that are built into the suits, as opposed to a detachable design commonly used in the past. The full suit, including integrated shoes, weighs about 20 pounds – 10 pounds less than the launch-and-entry suits astronauts have previously worn.

While Rosie is the only passenger on this initial test flight, Starliner was designed to accommodate up to seven human passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit. For NASA service missions to the ISS, Starliner will carry up to four NASA-sponsored crew members and time-sensitive scientific research. The spacecraft is reusable up to 10 times with a six-month turnaround, and features wireless internet and tablet technology for crew interfaces.

SpaceX has been developing its own passenger spacecraft, Dragon. Dragon successfully completed an uncrewed flight test to the ISS in March of this year with its own sensor-filled flight dummy, Ripley, making Dragon the first privately owned spacecraft to dock with the ISS.

Artist’s depiction of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in the vicinity of the International Space Station.
James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Unfortunately for SpaceX, this feat was not met without overcoming obstacles. In April of this year, one of Dragon’s propulsions systems exploded ­­­­­­during a static fire test. Following this anomaly, SpaceX created an Accident Investigation Team to investigate the cause of the incident.

According to a statement released by SpaceX, “the anomaly occurred approximately 100 milliseconds prior to ignition of Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco thrusters and during pressurization of the vehicle’s propulsion systems. Evidence shows that a leaking component allowed liquid oxidizer – nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) – to enter high-pressure helium tubes during ground processing. A slug of this NTO was driven through a helium check valve at high speed during rapid initialization of the launch escape system, resulting in structural failure within the check valve. The failure of the titanium component in a high-pressure NTO environment was sufficient to cause ignition of the check valve and led to an explosion.”

This infographic released by SpaceX provides deeper insight into Dragon’s capabilities.

Like SpaceX, Boeing has encountered setbacks. After cost overruns and lengthy technical delays the Starliner launch was pushed back multiple times. Additionally, during a standard pad abort test one of Starliner’s three parachutes, the main chute, failed to deploy. Despite these apparent setbacks, John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager of Boeing Commercial Crew Programs, spoke with confidence when the spacecraft was transported to Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 21, 2019. “For the team that has built the first American spacecraft designed to land on land, and to get it rolling out, is absolutely incredible,” said Mulholland. “Something this complex takes a huge team,” he added.

As all eyes are on Boeing after this highly anticipated test launch, the question becomes not will commercial space travel happen, but who will accomplish it first.

Emily Cavanagh is a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where she is pursuing a Master’s degree in Magazine Journalism.