Boeing launches NASA astronauts for the first time after years of delays

After years of delays Boeing has finally joined the exclusive club of companies that taxis crews to the International Space Station.

Boeing has launched astronauts for the first time after several delays, joining SpaceX in the exclusive club of firms that taxis NASA crews.

A pair of NASA test pilots blasted off on Wednesday aboard Boeing’s Starliner capsule for the International Space Station (ISS), the first to fly the new spacecraft.

The trip by Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams was expected to take 25 hours, with an arrival on Thursday. They will spend just over a week at the orbiting lab before climbing back into Starliner for a remote desert touchdown in the western US on June 14.

“Let’s get going!” Wilmore called out a few minutes before liftoff.

Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are on the spacecraft. / Credit: AP

Half an hour later, he and Williams were safely in orbit and giving chase to the space station.

Back at Cape Canaveral, the relieved launch controllers stood and applauded.

After all the trouble leading up to the launch, including two scrapped countdowns, everything went smoothly before and during liftoff, prompting congratulations from SpaceX’s Elon Musk and others.

“Today it all lined up,” said Boeing program manager Mark Nappi.

Starliner’s crew debut, which was years delayed because of spacecraft laws, comes as the company struggles with unrelated safety issues on its plane side of the business.

Wilmore and Williams – retired Navy captains and former space station residents – stressed repeatedly before the launch that they had full confidence in Boeing’s ability to get it right with this test flight.

Starliner’s initial test flight in 2019, which left without a crew and was crippled by bad software, had to be repeated before NASA would let its astronauts strap in.

The Starliner should arrive on Thursday. / Credit: AP

The 2022 do-over went much better, but parachute problems later cropped up and flammable tape had to be removed from the capsule.

Wednesday’s launch was the third attempt with astronauts since early May, coming after a pair of rocket-related problems, most recently happening last weekend.

A small helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system also caused delays but remained extremely low and manageable.

“It’s just a tough endeavour to get to flight and huge kudos to the entire team for getting there,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

Boeing was hired alongside Elon Musk’s SpaceX a decade ago to ferry NASA’s astronauts to and from the space station.

The space agency wanted two competing US companies for the job in the wake of the space shuttles’ retirement, paying $4.2 billion (£3.28 billion) to Boeing and just over half that to SpaceX, which refashioned the capsule it was using to deliver station supplies.

SpaceX launched astronauts into orbit in 2020, becoming the first private business to achieve what only three countries – Russia, the US and China – had mastered.

It has taken nine crews to the space station for NASA and three private groups for a Houston company that charters flights.

Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon are designed to be fully autonomous and reusable.

Wilmore and Williams occasionally will take manual control of Starliner on their way to the space station, to check out its systems.

The only snag early in the flight involved the capsule’s cooling system.

More water was used than expected before the radiators took over in orbit.

The tank will be refilled before the ride home.

If the mission goes well, NASA will alternate between SpaceX and Boeing for taxi flights, beginning next year.

The backup pilot for this test flight, Mike Fincke, will strap in for Starliner’s next trip.

“This is exciting. We built up to this moment for years and years, and it finally happened,” Fincke said from neighbouring Kennedy Space Centre.

“I feel like the whole planet was cheering for them.”

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