Boeing’s Starliner Makes History With Successful First Crewed Launch

Starliner lifts off on Wednesday, June 5, 2024 (Credit: Bill Nelson/NASA).

Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… this week, Boeing made history with the launch of its first crewed Starliner flight, a significant final flight test for the eagerly anticipated—and long-delayed—spacecraft. In our analysis, we’ll be looking at 1) the historic launch of Boeing’s partially reusable Starliner spacecraft, 2) what astronauts will be testing now that they’ve reached the ISS, 3) setbacks that have hindered Starliner’s launch, and 4) why this week’s launch represents a new milestone for NASA’s ongoing efforts with its commercial partners.

Quote of the Week

“Butch and Suni—safe travels through the stars. See you back home.”

– NASA Administrator Bill Nelson

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With that behind us, it’s time to look at how this week’s Starliner launch and subsequent mission milestones are poised to advance the United States’ capabilities in space exploration.

A Historic Launch

On Wednesday, Boeing made history with the launch of its first crewed Starliner flight, a significant final flight test for the eagerly anticipated—and long-delayed—spacecraft.

Boeing’s Starliner represents a class of partially reusable spacecraft which are built to carry crews to the International Space Station (ISS) and other low-Earth-orbit destinations. Consisting of a reusable crew capsule and an expendable service module, Boeing’s Starliner aims to carry regular crewed missions into low Earth orbit.

Despite recent setbacks, Wednesday’s launch made liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, shortly before 11 AM Eastern, carrying NASA veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard Starliner as it was propelled skyward by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Tests Aboard Starliner

The Starliner capsule was successfully released into orbit approximately 15 minutes after initial launch as part of the Crew Flight Test mission. This mission aims to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and expand the number of commercial space providers NASA can use for its Commercial Crew Program.

Wilmore and Williams completed their 25-hour journey and successfully docked with the ISS at around 12:15 p.m. on Thursday. They’ll spend the next week conducting tests involving the aircraft’s thruster performance and the capabilities and functionality of their spacesuits within the capsule. Additional tests involving manual piloting capabilities will also be undertaken.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner approaches the ISS in 2022 during an uncrewed test mission (Credit: Bob Hines/NASA).

Another crucial component of the mission will involve the evaluation of Starliner’s “safe haven” capability, which will provide astronauts aboard the ISS with an emergency shelter area.

Catching Up After Delays

This week’s Starliner launch finally came together after several delays that included an additional last-minute cancellation on Saturday.

Prior to the initial launch time scheduled this weekend, a ground support computer issue halted the widely anticipated liftoff. Earlier in May, another issue related to the rocket grounded another attempted launch.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has emphasized the importance of Starliner’s mission as the sixth inaugural journey of a crewed spacecraft in US history. Notably, Williams also made history as the first woman to fly aboard such a mission.

A New Milestone for NASA

Starliner’s successful launch marks the latest milestone in NASA’s ongoing collaboration with industry partners, where it aims to expand its options for spacecraft it can use to send astronauts to the ISS. Despite the setbacks, Starliner’s launch this week marks a new challenge to SpaceX, whose successful operations under the same program have essentially led commercial spacefaring efforts in recent years.

Presently, the earliest potential landing date for Starliner will be June 14, although factors such as weather and attainment of all testing objectives while in orbit will determine when the spacecraft returns to Earth.

Starliner craft seen following testing at White Sands in December 2019 (Credit: NASA).

Ultimately, Wednesday’s successful launch and the successive mission milestones to come will serve as prime indicators of whether Starliner will be set to join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in providing reliable transportation for NASA astronauts, marking another leap forward in the United States’ overall capabilities in space exploration.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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