Watch Boeing’s make it or break it Starliner launch today

After years of setbacks and technical snafus, Boeing’s Starliner orbital spacecraft is returning to the launch pad. The aerospace giant will conduct a second test flight of the spacecraft on Thursday, as the company seeks to stay competitive in the growing space industry and loosen SpaceX’s emerging monopoly on crewed missions to the International Space Station.

The CST-100 Starliner will launch aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, taking off from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station later today at 6:54 PM EST.  Starliner should reach its preliminary orbit 31 minutes after launch; if all goes to plan, it will dock with the ISS around 7:10 PM EST on Friday. The craft will be carrying more than 500 pounds of supplies for astronauts aboard the station, and will come back to Earth around 5-8 days later with more than 600 pounds of return cargo.

The Atlas V, ULA’s workhorse rocket that has made 92 successful launches, was specifically configured for this mission. Instead of a payload fairing, or the nose cone used to protect payload from the rough effects of entering and exiting Earth’s atmosphere, Starliner is equipped with protective surfaces that will fulfill the same function.

Starliner’s second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) comes almost two and a half years after the first unsuccessful attempt in December 2019. During that test flight, a software issue caused the capsule to miss its target orbit and burn too much fuel; instead of making its rendezvous with the ISS as planned, Starliner hung out in an alternate orbit for a few days before NASA and Boeing officials greenlighted its return to Earth.

Boeing originally scheduled this second test flight for last August, but that had to be scrubbed just four and a half hours prior to launch after an issue was discovered with over half of the spacecraft’s oxidizer valves.

Nailing this launch is key to Boeing becoming a competitive crew transportation provider for NASA under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program. NASA (read: the taxpayer) has awarded a total of $4.82 billion to Boeing to develop a commercial crew transportation system, and so far that money has yet to yield a single successful mission. The other CCtCap awardee, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has already started ferrying astronauts to and from ISS with the Crew Dragon capsule. The program with SpaceX has been so successful that NASA extended SpaceX’s contract to include three more crewed missions at a cost of $900 million.

It’s unclear what will happen should Boeing fail to pull off today’s launch, but it will undoubtedly include a return to the drawing board and complete timeline overhaul. So suffice to say: today, all eyes are on Starliner.

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