Boeing’s Starliner capsule starts its crewed debut

Here's what it means

There’s a lot more riding on Boeing’s Starliner capsule than the two astronauts who are now headed to the International Space Station.

Fifteen years ago, with the space shuttle fleet poised for retirement, NASA announced it was moving away from relying on government owned vehicles to bring astronauts to and from ISS. By 2017, the United States was supposed to have two commercial providers competing for launch service contracts, but until today, NASA’s $8.2 billion Commercial Crew spacecraft development program had yielded only one provider: SpaceX with its Crew Dragon capsules.

Having two commercial operators competing, NASA has long said, would bring more value, reduced launch costs and launch resilience. Astronauts would not be grounded or forced to fly on non-American vehicles if one of the providers went out of business or experienced a tragedy like the Challenger launch explosion in 1986 or the disintegration of Columbia in 2003. Those accidents claimed the lives of 14 astronauts and grounded the shuttle fleet for a combined five and half years.

Even now, NASA emphasizes that the Crew Commercial Program is driven by safety, not schedule. The agency, for instance, did not complain about today’s launch being delayed multiple times starting last month, including to replace a tank valve in the Atlas V’s upper stage and to diagnose a helium leak in Starliner’s service module. Overall, SpaceX was late by three years in getting astronauts to ISS, and if all goes as planned in the hours ahead, it will have taken Boeing seven years longer than planned to do it. The mission is a contractually required test before Boeing’s Starliners can join the Crew Dragons in the job of regularly carrying astronauts to and from ISS on crew rotations.

Today’s launch could have implications for NASA’s mission costs and its resilience.

In 2020, NASA told its advisory council that the Commercial Crew Program would save the agency $20-$30 billion compared to developing a successor to the space shuttles that it would own and operate.

Boeing’s delay, however, means that NASA now has less opportunity to accrue savings from a price competition between the two providers. The International Space Station is scheduled to be deorbited in 2030, if current plans hold, and both companies are already on contract for flights over that span. Two years ago, NASA twice modified its contract with SpaceX for an additional eight Commercial Crew flights on top of the six contracted in 2014. Worth noting, though, is that the deorbiting date for ISS has shifted to the right multiple times in the past.

Boeing’s six flights contracted in 2014 still lie ahead. “That takes us out to the end of the decade. And what we do after that — we have time to make those decisions based on the International Space Station, and based on the other space stations that may be put into orbit after that,” said Boeing’s Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of the company’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a May press conference. He was referring to plans for private sector space stations that NASA is attempting to encourage with a similar competitive program.

Now about resilience.

After Columbia was lost in 2003, NASA had to procure seats on Russian Soyuz capsules to carry astronauts to and from ISS. Likewise, when the last shuttle landed in 2011, NASA again turned to Russia at a cost per seat that rose to $80 million. The gap in U.S. human launch and reentry capability grew to nine years, becoming a magnet for critics who did not like NASA relying on Russian vehicles.

“It’s really, really important for us to have robust and redundant capability to keep us crewed and keep the [ISS] vehicle healthy,” Dana Weigel, NASA’s ISS program manager, said in the press conference.

four things to knoW

  • This launch was the first time an Atlas V has carried people: The Starliner capsule lifted off atop the United Launch Alliance rocket at 10:52 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • Two U.S. naval officers-turned astronauts are aboard: The pilot is Sunita “Suni” Williams, 58, a former naval aviator and test pilot. The commander is Barry “Butch” Wilmore, 61, a retired U.S. Navy captain. This is the third spaceflight for both astronauts.
  • Manual control will be tested: Starliner is designed to fly to ISS autonomously, but plans call for the crew to test manual operations before the capsule docks autonomously.
  • The docking will be livestreamed: NASA coverage begins at 9:30 a.m. Eastern on June 6, and the docking is scheduled for 12:15 p.m.
  • There won’t be a splashdown this time: Starliner will come down on the grounds of the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, cushioned by airbags after being slowed by parachutes.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule starts its crewed debut