Boeing’s Starliner capsule begins much-delayed first flight: UPDATE
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – After almost a year of continued delays, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has finally launched. It is the culmination of years of development, but there’s still a ways to go before astronauts will be soaring aloft in the vehicle.
Dubbed Orbital Flight Test-1 (OFT-1), this 8 day mission got underway at 6:36 a.m. EST (11:36 UTC) from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After it cleared Earth’s atmosphere, Starliner entered into a geocentric low-Earth orbit (LEO) with an inclination of 51.6 degrees.
The ultimate goal of this mission is to see how well Starliner performs its intended task of docking to the International Space Station (ISS). Originally scheduled for the Spring of 2019, OFT-1 experienced multiple delays, including delays with launches scheduled before OFT-1 (slips to other flights on the launch manifest impact the timetables of following missions).
The rocket selected to power Starliner through the chilly skies above Florida was one of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V boosters, in the N22 configuration. This was the first time that this version of the venerable launch vehicle was flown in this particular configuration. One of the most notable changes was the lack of a nose cone, which would have shielded Starliner on its way to orbit. Rather, Starliner was attached to the rocket by a launch vehicle adapter (LVA).
After Atlas’ first stage had completed its part of the mission some 4 minutes, 49 seconds into the flight, the second stage got to work. This part of the flight further helped distinguish this iteration of Atlas from its relatives. Instead of utilizing a lone Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 on its Centaur upper stage, OFT-1 used two. It also sported two solid rocket motors to provide it with the extra “punch” needed to lift Starliner and Atlas away from the pad.
To ensure the capsule’s safety, Centaur’s Emergency Detection System (EDS) monitored the vehicle’s systems and relayed that data to Starliner.
“We have what are called ‘no-black’ zones on our ascent profile. We have to demonstrate that we have the ability to abort from the pad all the way to orbit.” Boeing’s Josh Barrett told SpaceFlight Insider.
This morning’s launch took place a little more than a month after a demo model of Starliner completed its first pad abort test on Nov. 4, 2019. The 95-second test successfully proved Starliner’s ability to quickly propel itself to safety in the event of an unexpected anomaly during liftoff. While the vehicle itself performed as expected, one of the three drag chutes failed to deploy. Despite this, the vehicle landed safely and Boeing declared the test a full success. The incident provided another (albeit minor) mark on the spacecraft’s development.
A recent report issued by NASA’s Office of Inspector General didn’t paint Boeing’s efforts as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program in a very favorable light. In Sept. 2016, Boeing offered NASA its price for four “post-certification missions” of Starliner. The prices, which are unknown, were rejected by NASA for being too expensive. Boeing negotiated with NASA for the payment of $287.2 million in order to allow Boeing “additional flexibilities.” These flexibilities would give Boeing the ability to “shorten lead times for spacecraft and rocket production”, which would reduce gaps in access to the Space Station. Boeing disagreed with the report’s finding.
“We strongly disagree with the report’s conclusions about CST-100 Starliner pricing and readiness, and we owe it to the space community and the American public to share the facts the Inspector General [IG] missed,” said Jim Chilton, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Launch via a company-issued rebuttal to the findings. “Each member of the Boeing team has a personal stake in the safety, quality and integrity of what we offer our customers, and since Day One, the Starliner team has approached this program with a commitment to design, develop and launch a vehicle that we and NASA can be proud of.”
UPDATE: The OFT-1 Starliner spacecraft has been placed into the wrong orbit and won’t be able to achieve its goal of rendezvousing with the International Space Station.
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.