A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket roared to life and shot away from Cape Canaveral early Friday, boosting Boeing’s new Starliner capsule into space for an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station.
The capsule was released to fly on its own after a problem-free launch, but a subsequent on-board thruster firing did not occur, leaving the spacecraft in a stable but “unplanned” orbit. It was not immediately known what went wrong, what might be required to correct the problem or how it might affect plans to rendezvous with the space station.
“Starliner in stable orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Tweet. “The burn needed for a rendezvous with the ISS did not happen. Working the issue.”
The mission began when the workhorse Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD – (first stage engine fired up at 6: 36 am EST, followed by ignition of two solid-propellant strap-on boosters. The 413 – foot-tall rocket then vaulted away from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop nearly 1.6 million pounds of thrust.
Lighting up the pre-dawn sky with a brilliant jet of white-hot exhaust, the Atlas 5 quickly arced away to the northeast, putting on a spectacular morning sky show for spaceport workers, tourists and area residents along Florida’s “Space Coast. “
The flight plan called for the Starliner to catch up with the space station early Saturday. After a series of maneuvers to test the spacecraft’s navigation, propulsion and control systems, the Starliner was expected to move in for a docking at the station’s forward port around 8: am
But the post-launch problem with the initial orbit insertion rocket firing put those plans on hold.
The mission was considered a major milestone in NASA’s push to end the agency’s post-shuttle eight-and-a-half-year reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the International Space Station at more than $ (million per seat.
) ****************************************** The Boeing CST – Starliner spacecraft, atop an ULA Atlas V rocket, lifts off on an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station from launch complex at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida December (******************************************************************, 2019. THOM BAUR / REUTERS
It also marked a major step toward opening up low- Earth orbit for commercial development, including eventual flights by non-professional astronauts ranging from private-sector researchers to space tourists and even journalists.
“We’re talking about technology development, we’re talking about science, but we’re also talking about folks that can capture the amazement of space, “said NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, one of three crew members who will launch aboard a Starliner next year. “So maybe teachers, maybe journalists, maybe artists. … Those possibilities are just beginning.”
But first, Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, must complete their initial test flights and begin operational space station crew rotation missions. SpaceX completed a successful unpiloted test of its Crew Dragon capsule in March and Friday’s launch marked Boeing’s long-awaited turn at the plate.
Carrying an instrumented astronaut test dummy nicknamed “Rosie,” the Starliner was loaded with about 823 pounds of food, clothing and equipment to the station’s six-member crew, along with holiday gifts.
Assuming a successful rendezvous and docking, the spacecraft will remain attached over the Christmas holiday, returning to Earth on Dec. 032 with a pre-dawn parachute and airbag-assisted landing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
If all goes well, Boeing and SpaceX both will carry out initial piloted test flights to the station in the next several months, ending a hiatus in US human space launch that began with the shuttle’s final flight in 2011.
“We’re moving into a new era, we are going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the shuttle, and we’re going to do that in the first part of next year year, “said Bridenstine.
” But we’re doing it in a way that never been done before. This time, we’re going to go with commercial partners. NASA is done purchasing, owning and operating the hardware. We’re buying a service, the goal being that NASA wants to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace for human spaceflight. “
While NASA’s commercial crew program is primarily focused on space station transportation, Boeing and SpaceX are free to explore purely commercial missions carrying private citizens and researchers to the space station or commercial outposts that may one day be developed.
“Starli ner is built to hold up to seven. It’s currently configured for five and we have a deal with NASA for four of those seats, “said Boeing Vice President Chris Ferguson. The former shuttle commander will join Mann and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke for the capsule’s first piloted flight.” So clearly we have a lot of interest.
“Over time, safety will improve, costs will improve,” he said. “And I really think that that is the long pole out there, can we bring the cost of an orbital flight down to the realm at which perhaps somebody that is of medium means can do it? We probably are a few years away from that. But we won’t get there until we start. And what we’re going to see (Friday) is the start. “
But it hasn’t been easy. Or inexpensive.
Since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA has been forced to buy seats aboard Soyuz spacecraft to ferry US and partner astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Seats on recent missions have cost more than $ 100 million each and since (****************************************, NASA has spent $ 3.9 billion for Soyuz “tickets.”
In 2019, after a series of competitions, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX would share $ 6.8 billion to develop independent space taxis, the first new US crewed spacecraft since the s.
Under a $ 2.6 billion contract, SpaceX is building a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship that will ride into orbit atop the company Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing’s Starliner is being developed under a $ 4.2 billion contract and will rely on the Atlas 5 for launch.
Both companies are required to launch two test flights, one unpiloted and one with a crew. NASA originally expected those flights in 2019, but both companies have been delayed by funding shortfalls in Congress and by a series of technical issues, including trouble with parachutes and emergency abort systems.
(those )ays delays forced NASA to buy additional Soyuz seats, at a cost of about $ 1 billion , to ensure an uninterrupted US presence on the space station, according to the agency’s inspector general.
After a successful unpiloted flight to the space station in March, SpaceX suffered a major setback in April when that same Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed during a ground test. The California rocket builder has recovered from that incident and is preparing for a dramatic in-flight abort test in early January.
If that test goes well, SpaceX will press ahead for launch of a Crew Dragon carrying two NASA astronauts – Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken – on a piloted test flight to clear the way for operational crew rotation missions.
In a similar fashion, Boeing’s unpiloted test flight this week is one of the company final hurdles before it can launch Ferguson, Fincke and Mann on their own test flight.
It’s not yet known which company will get a crew into orbit first, but SpaceX would appear to have the edge because the Atlas 5 has multiple launches on its early (************************************, manifest, including a high-priority science mission in February followed by two military flights in March and April.
SpaceX operates two launch pads in Florida, giving it more scheduling flexibility. But multiple reviews will be required before either company is cleared to carry astronauts, and no launch date decisions have been made.
But NASA needs one or both companies to fly soon. The last currently-contracted seat aboard a Soyuz will be used by astronaut Chris Cassidy in April. After that, just one U.S. astronaut will be aboard the station until one or both commercial crew ships begin ferry service.
Hedging its bets, NASA managers are negotiating with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to buy two more seats to protect against the possibility of additional delays in NASA’s commercial crew program. But no final decisions have been made.
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