A rocket taking off on a cloudy day with a swamp in the foreground
Boeing’s Starliner capsule launches on May 19, 2022

Boeing's new passenger spaceship, the CST-100 Starliner, successfully launched to space this afternoon, reaching the right altitude to rendezvous with the International Space Station tomorrow. The launch of Starliner marks the beginning of a crucial test flight that will help demonstrate if the capsule is capable of carrying humans to space one day.

Boeing and NASA collaborated on the development of Starliner, a private spaceship that will be used to transport NASA's astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The capsule is one of two vehicles that NASA helped to fund in order to transition space transportation from the government to commercial companies. NASA wants Boeing to demonstrate that Starliner can perform all of the tasks of a normal spaceflight mission without a crew on board.

it’s been a bumpy road to reach this point

It has been a bumpy road to get to this point, but that is what the flight is designed to do. This mission is a redo. The OFT mission, which was attempted by Boeing in December, suffered a series of software problems. The capsule never made it to the International Space Station, and Boeing had to bring Starliner home early, failing to demonstrate its ability to dock with the ISS. Boeing was close to launching again last summer after agreeing to redo the flight for NASA. Boeing halted the flight just hours before liftoff after discovering some propellant valves that weren't working properly. The company had to bring Starliner back to the factory.

The launch of Starliner is going well, according to a communications representative for Boeing.

It has a lot to prove. It will need to show that it can dock with the International Space Station using its onboard sensors. It will need to undock and come back to Earth. The work has just begun, even though Starliner has seen success today.

Boeing seems to have overcome the problems it experienced in 2019. The most nail-biting moment of the day was when Starliner burned a suite of onboard thrusters to put itself into its final position. The United Launch Alliance operates an Atlas V rocket that Starliner uses to launch to space. The four Starliners must burn for less than a minute to get the capsule in the correct position. A software glitch made Starliner think it was the wrong time of day, causing the capsule to fire its thrusters. Starliner spent too much propellant and didn't get into the right place to reach the International Space Station.

Starliner is in its intended path, and the firing of the thrusters seemed to go well today. Boeing had to scrub its last launch in August of 2021 because of problems with its propellant valves. Boeing added a sealant to the valves before this flight to prevent them from getting wet.

An artistic rendering of Starliner docking with the International Space Station
Image: Boeing

Starliner will spend the next day in space and attempt to dock with the International Space Station on Friday. Crew members on the space station will be watching the capsule. They will open the hatch to Starliner on Saturday if that goes well. Rosie the Rocketeer is a mannequin that is used to collect data to help determine how the flight will be for future passengers. After four to five days docked at the International Space Station, Starliner will undock and then return to Earth, possibly at one of five possible sites, including the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Depending on how this mission goes, it will be up to NASA and Boeing to prepare Starliner for human spaceflight, performing a test mission with people on board called CFT, for Crewed Flight Test. The first crew on Starliner will be finalized by the end of the summer, according to NASA.

it will be up to NASA and Boeing to prepare Starliner for human spaceflight

There is still a long road ahead before that can happen. The process of certifying the parachutes needed to land Starliner is lagging. The valves that gave the company trouble last year are thought to be the reason for the redesign by Boeing. It could take longer for NASA to certify Starliner for carrying people if that happens. The safety panel warned against rushing to do it.

Dave West, a member of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said during the meeting that there is no sense of needing to rush to CFT.

The best way to prepare for CFT was for the current flight to go well, according to the panel. The next week is when the decision will be made.