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Boeing Starliner lifts off to space station on second orbital flight test

May 19, 2022

— The long-delayed second launch of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft got off to a better start than its first, with the uncrewed capsule now on its way to a docking with the International Space Station.

The Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) lifted off from Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday (May 19), two and a half years after software issues cut short Starliner's first attempt at reaching the space station. This time, the launch, at 6:54 p.m. EDT (2254 GMT), went as planned, with a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket using its dual-engine Centaur upper stage to insert the capsule into an initial shallow orbit just shy of 15 minutes into the flight.

On Starliner's first mission, Orbital Flight Test-1 (OFT-1), which was launched in December 2019, an internal mission timer anomaly caused the capsule to perform a sequence of maneuvers at the incorrect time and miss its orbital insertion burn. On Thursday, the spacecraft's separation from the Centaur went smoothly, leaving the Starliner ready to fire its four orbital maneuvering and attitude control (OMAC) thrusters to stabilize its orbit and begin its rendezvous with the station.

"I am so proud of the NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance teams who have worked so hard to see Starliner on its way to the International Space Station," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. "Through adversity, our teams have continued to innovate for the benefit of our nation and all of humanity. I look forward to a successful end-to-end test of the Starliner spacecraft, which will help enable missions with astronauts aboard."

Boeing's Starliner OFT-2 launch. Click to enlarge video in new pop-up window. (NASA)

The successful launch served as a double validation for the vehicle, demonstrating that not only had Boeing overcome the software problems that cut short OFT-1, but also the hardware issues that delayed the OFT-2 launch by nine months. An attempt to launch OFT-2 in August 2021 was canceled after 13 oxidizer isolation valves failed to open.

In the downtime, Boeing engineers replaced the service module supporting the Starliner with one intended for a later crewed flight test and installed a new direct purge system to protect the valves from exposure to ambient moisture, the root cause of the earlier failures.

"We've learned a lot about the capability of our spacecraft and the resilience of our team since the first Starliner launch," Mark Nappi, vice president and manager of Boeing's commercial crew program, said in a statement released after the launch. "We still have a lot of operational testing ahead as we prepare to rendezvous with the space station, but we're ready to demonstrate the system we've worked so hard on is capable of carrying astronauts to space."

Now in orbit, Starliner is scheduled to link up with the Boeing-built international docking adapter on the forward-facing port of the station's Harmony node at 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT) on Friday.

The OFT-2 mission, which Boeing set aside $410 million to fly after encountering the problems on its first Starliner test flight, is aimed at completing the objectives missed on OFT-1. If successful, the Starliner will not only demonstrate its ability to dock and undock from the station, but also test its communications systems while attached to the orbital complex and collect data about key components that were absent from the 2019 flight.

"The launch abort system is going to be enabled," said Steve Stich, manager of NASA's commercial crew program. "The Atlas vehicle has a system that can detect problems. We flew that in a monitor mode on OFT-1 and that worked fine. So for this particular flight, all the all the aborts for ascent are enabled."

The capsule also has a new, retractable nose cap being tested for the first time.

Returning from OFT-1 is Starliner's first and only passenger, an anthropometric test device named "Rosie the Rocketeer" after the World War II cultural icon. The spacesuited and instrumented figure was used on the first test flight to generate data about what a crew member would experience while flying on Starliner. Now, she has a different mission.

"She's in the commander's seat," said Nappi. "Rosie the Rocketeer is in [the spacecraft] to maintain center of gravity during ascent, docking and undocking. There are also 15 sensors associated with Rosie where she will be collecting information related to the seat pallet structure."

The Starliner is also packed with about 500 pounds (230 kg) of cargo, including food and other NASA-provided supplies for the astronauts on the station. It will return to Earth with nearly 600 pounds (270 kg) of cargo, including reusable Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System (NORS) tanks that provide breathable air to station crew members.

To commemorate the flight test and moving from uncrewed to astronaut missions, Boeing is flying a U.S. flag on OFT-2 that will remain on the space station until it is brought back Earth by the CFT crew. Other Boeing commemoratives on board the Starliner include flags for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Rosie the Riveter commemorative coins.

After about five days and pending acceptable weather conditions, the Starliner will undock and return to Earth for a parachute and airbag-cushioned touchdown at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.


A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner for the spacecraft's uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) on Thursday, May 19, 2022 from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. (United Launch Alliance)

A ULA Atlas V climbs to space with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner on the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Boeing infographic showing the milestones of the CST-100 Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) launch and ascent to orbit. (Boeing)

Rosie the Rocketeer, Boeing's anthropometric test device, claimed her spot once again in the commander's seat inside the company's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for its second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) launched on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Boeing)

Boeing's Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission patch represents the team dedicated to making the 2022 launch a success. (Boeing)

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