Boeing Starliner finally begins second test flight, but not without glitches

After years of setbacks, Boeing finally got its new spacecraft back into orbit

Jon Kelvey
Friday 20 May 2022 22:32 BST
ULA launches Boeing’s uncrewed Starliner spacecraft from Florida

The Boeing Starliner is well on its way to completing a long-awaited rendezvous with the International Space Station after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Lifting off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, the uncrewed Starliner spacecraft quickly reached and surpassed the point in its flight where a software glitch forced Boeing to cancel an ISS rendezvous in 2019.

But the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) launch on Thursday was not a flawless victory, since the spacecraft did experience a failure of some of its thrusters shortly after lift off.

Boeing Starliner OFT-2 lifts off

The Starliner is Boeing’s contribution to Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program, which was set up to contract with private launch companies to ferry Nasa astronauts to and from the space station. Both Boeing and SpaceX received Nasa contracts in 2019, but while SpaceX was able to begin carrying astronauts for Nasa in 2020, the Starliner’s failed orbital flight test kept Boeing on the sidelines.

Boeing made a second attempt at OFT-2 in August 2021, but it never got off the ground — problems with valves in the Starliner’s propulsion system during pre-launch tests forced Boeing to scrub the launch and then took months to fix.

But OFT-2 lifted off shortly before 7pm EDT Thursday evening, successfully reaching orbit, but not without some hiccups.

According to reporting by Reuters, Boeing announced at a post-launch press conference that two thrusters — out of 12 — failed to fire as expected, but that backup thrusters automatically kicked in and kept the spacecraft on course.

"The system is designed to be redundant, and it performed like it was supposed to," Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager said, according to Reuters. "We have a safe vehicle, and we’re on our way to the International Space Station."

The Starliner is expected to reach and dock with the ISS sometime Friday evening, where astronauts will unload 500 pounds of cargo onto the space station. If the rest of the mission goes as planned, a first crewed test flight of the Starliner could take place as early as sometime this fall.

Nasa is eager to see the Starliner pass its tests and begin regular service, with Nasa officials repeatedly stating the space agency is interested in redundancy and competition between its contractors.

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