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Boeing’s Starliner launches from Cape Canaveral on critical test for NASA, but not without problems

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, May 19, 2022, at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is Starliner’s second uncrewed flight test and will dock to the International Space Station as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. OFT-2 launched at 6:54 p.m. ET, and will serve as an end-to-end test of the system's capabilities. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing’s Starliner capsule has left the ground and is on its way to the International Space Station. It comes after nearly a two and a half year delay of a critical test flight for the vehicle designed to fly NASA astronauts.

The uncrewed capsule launched on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. The company reported a flawless launch performance of the Atlas V booster and upper stage. Once separated from the rocket, Starliner fired its own thrusters to put it into an orbit to catch up with the space station Friday evening.

But at a press conference Thursday evening, Boeing announced that two of those thrusters failed. Despite the failure, Boeing said other thrusters were successful and the team is confident in the performance of the spacecraft. The system is designed to have backup hardware in case of situations like this one, the company said, and engineers are investigating the why the two thrusters failed.

“The system is is designed to be redundant and it performed like it was supposed to,” said Boeing’s Mark Nappi. “Now the team is working the why — why had those those anomalies occur? We have a safe vehicle and we’re on our way to the International Space Station.”

Starliner is expected to dock with the station Friday around 7:10 p.m. EDT. The crew on board the ISS will open the hatch to the vehicle Saturday morning.

Boeing is proving to NASA the spacecraft is safe to carry astronauts by demonstrating it can dock autonomously to the station, communicate with flight controllers on the ground, and then return to Earth safely after about a week in space, departing on Wednesday.

Boeing made two previous attempts at the mission. One in 2019 launched but failed to reach the station due to a software issue. The other last summer never left the ground due to corrosion of the spacecraft’s valves.

NASA currently relies on private company SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the station — which has sent five NASA missions to the ISS so far.

If all goes well for Boeing’s test flight, the company could be launching its first NASA astronauts by the end of the year.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »