What you need to know about Boeing’s first space flight carrying NASA astronauts

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After years of stumbles and delays, Boeing has the astronauts have finally been launched at the International Space Station for NASA.

This is the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule with a crew on board, two NASA pilots who will check out the spacecraft during the test drive and a week-long stay at the space station.

NASA turned to U.S. companies for astronaut travel after the space shuttles were retired. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has completed nine taxi trips for NASA since 2020, while Boeing has only managed two empty test flights.

If this test goes well, NASA will alternate between Boeing and SpaceX to bring astronauts to and from the space station.

A preview of the new ride and its shakedown cruise:

THE CAPSULE

White with black and blue trim, Boeing’s Starliner capsule is approximately 3 meters high and 4.5 meters in diameter. It can accommodate up to seven people, although NASA crews usually number four. The company chose the name Starliner nearly a decade ago, a variation of the name of Boeing’s first Stratoliner planes and current Dreamliner planes.

No one was on board the two previous test flights of Boeing’s Starliner. The first, in 2019, faced software issues so severe that its empty capsule was unable to reach the station before second trial in 2022. Then last summer, weak parachutes and flammable ribbons appeared that had to be repaired or removed. Wednesday’s launch was the third test with astronauts; two previous countdowns were scuttled due to rocket problems.

THE CREW

Veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are retired naval captains who spent months aboard the space station years ago. They rejoined the test flight after the original crew pulled out as delays mounted. Wilmore, 61, is a former combat pilot from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, and Williams, 58, is a helicopter pilot from Needham, Massachusetts.

THE TEST FLIGHT

Starliner lifted off aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral space station. This is the first time astronauts have ascended an Atlas since NASA’s Project Mercury, starting with John Glenn when he became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. Today, 62 years later Late Wednesday’s launch was the 100th for the high-end Atlas. Atlas V, which is used to hoist satellites as well as spacecraft. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Starliner is expected to reach the space station with its seven residents on Thursday. Starliner will remain docked for a little over a week, undergoing checks before landing in the American West.

STARLINER AGAINST. DRAGON

Boeing and SpaceX capsules are designed to be autonomous and reusable. This Starliner is the same one that made the first test flight in 2019. Unlike the SpaceX Dragons, the Starliner has traditional hand controls and switches as well as touchscreens and, according to the astronauts, looks more to NASA’s Orion capsules for lunar missions. Plans called for Wilmore and Williams to briefly…

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