Cape CanaveralCommercial CrewHuman SpaceflightInternational Space StationNASANews and UpdatesULA

Starliner Launches first Crew to ISS

Boeing’s Crew Flight Test mission lifts off from Launch Complex 41, the first mission carrying humans for United Launch Alliance.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

This article, and all of the photos within it, are dedicated to John O’Connor. A truly incredible friend and colleague, we hope you fly high and rest easy. As you put so eloquently, we are witness to an adventure like none before. 

This one’s for you.

On June 5, 2024 at 10:52 AM, America’s newest crew capable spacecraft lifted off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. 61 years, 21 days, 1 hour, 48 minutes and 1 second since Atlas LV-3B 130-D launched Gordon Cooper into orbit aboard Faith 7, the mighty Atlas V continues the dream, carrying the torch to bring Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams to the International Space Station and fulfilling the promise of the Commercial Crew Program with two dissimilar crew vehicles. Boeing’s Crew Flight Test, the last step in verifying Starliner for regular rotations, is well underway.

Atlas V’s twin Solid Rocket Motors and RD-180 power Calypso skywards towards the ISS.
Credit: David Diebold

The CFT mission encountered several delays during its launch campaign, after an issue with the Centaur upper stage forced a rollback after the May 6th launch attempt. During the downtime, Boeing and NASA teams identified and analyzed a helium leak on the Starliner spacecraft, which was ultimately assessed to not pose a threat to the mission. On June 1, the Boeing and NASA teams made another attempt to launch Starliner to the ISS, but were forced to scrub after a ground-side computer was not configured correctly. After a nominal liftoff Wednesday morning, the crew spent 26 hours in transit on their way to the ISS, spending their time checking out the spacecraft and verifying that the spacecraft was in a healthy configuration for docking with the International Space Station. During this transit, the crew monitored a non-critical helium leak, which was partially related to the leak observed during prelaunch prep. The crew and ground concurred that it did not pose a risk to the remainder of the flight, and continued with rendezvous and proximity operations with ISS on Thursday morning. As the spacecraft approached the station, issues with 4 reaction control system thrusters became apparent, necessitating a close analysis of the spacecraft systems. Docking with the ISS took place at 1:34 PM Eastern Time, after a manual hold and piloting demonstration aimed at demonstrating Starliner’s thruster health were conducted, with the flight crew making the choice to disable the B1A3 thruster for final approach. After contact and capture, Commander Butch Wilmore quipped “Nice to be attached to the big city in the sky.” Hatch opening took place at 3:45 PM Eastern time, bringing the ISS crew to 9 people.

Boeing, ULA and NASA have reiterated the need for safe, reliable and consistent crew access to space throughout the entire campaign. Intense scrutiny both before and during the launch and orbital operations of Starliner have been apparent, with careful planning and quick thinking on display across all aspects of the program. “Safety is a critical part of the ULA decision-making process, and we are deeply honored to have been entrusted with the responsibility of starting the astronauts on their journey to the International Space Station, one that we will watching throughout their mission,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs in the post launch press conference. “ULA has performed a tremendous amount of work in conjunction with our partners at Boeing and NASA to ensure our designs provide the highest level of safety to the crew and we will continue to prioritize our dedication to safety as we look forward to future launches in support of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.”  

The Atlas V supporting Starliner’s CFT mission is the 100th Atlas V, and the first Atlas family rocket since the Mercury Program.
Credit: Nick Wolf

The crew of Boeing’s CFT represent some of NASA’s best and brightest, joining the crew of Expedition 71 onboard the International Space Station for a short stay while systems onboard Starliner and Station are assessed. The crew for this mission has fluctuated over time, given the program’s lengthy delays requiring astronauts be reassigned to different, operational missions. Nicole Aunapu Mann was initially assigned to this mission, which would have made her the first woman to fly on the maiden crewed flight of an orbital spacecraft, but was subsequently reassigned to the SpaceX Crew-5 mission as the first female commander of a NASA Commercial Crew Program launch. Due to medical reasons, Eric Boe, who was originally assigned to the mission in August 2018 as pilot, was replaced by Michael Fincke on 22 January 2019. Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson was originally assigned to the flight as commander, but he was replaced by NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore on 7 October 2020. Ferguson cited family reasons for the replacement. On 16 June 2022, NASA confirmed that Boeing’s CFT mission would be a two-person flight test, consisting of Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams; Fincke was assigned to train as the backup spacecraft test pilot and remains eligible for assignment to a future mission.

Commander Butch Wilmore and Pilot Sunita Williams smile for the camera ahead of their trip to Launch Complex 41.
Credit: David Diebold

Barry “Butch” Wilmore is the commander for the CFT mission. A veteran of two spaceflights, Wilmore has 178 days in space under his belt. In 2009, he served as a pilot aboard space shuttle Atlantis for STS-129. Additionally, Wilmore served as a flight engineer for Expedition 41 until November 2014, when he assumed command of the station upon arrival of the Expedition 42 crew. He returned to Earth the following March. Prior to being selected by NASA in 2000, the father of two obtained both his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, before graduating with another master’s degree in Aviation Systems from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also a graduate of the United States Naval Test Pilot School, Patuxent River, Maryland, and has completed four operational deployments during his tenure as a fleet naval officer and aviator. 

Starliner pictured on approach to station during the CFT mission, as seen from ISS external cams.
Credit: NASA

Sunita “Suni” Williams is the pilot for the flight test. Williams has spent 322 days in space across two missions: Expedition 14/15 in 2006 through 2007, and Expedition 32/33 in 2012. The Massachusetts native also conducted seven spacewalks, totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes. Before her career began with NASA in 1998, Williams graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Physical Science from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, before obtaining her master’s degree in Engineering Management from the Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne. In total, she has logged more than 3,000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft.

As the final flight test for Starliner, NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test will validate the transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, in-orbit operational capabilities, and return to Earth with astronauts aboard. This is Boeing’s second flight to the International Space Station and third Starliner flight test overall, following a second successful Orbital Flight Test, the uncrewed mission also known as OFT-2, in May 2022. Boeing’s Starliner was one of two spacecraft selected by NASA as part of their Commercial Crew program, an initiative to reduce costs by contracting private entities to fly NASA astronauts. This model differs significantly from previous operations, in which NASA constructed and operated their own fleet of spacecraft. Under Commercial Crew, the spacecraft are owned and operated by the vendor, and crew transportation is provided to NASA as a commercial service. Each mission typically sends up to four astronauts to the ISS. For Boeing, this also includes an optional fifth seat to allow participants from the commercial sector to join NASA astronauts, should any buyers choose to do so. Operational flights occur approximately once every six months for missions that last for just as long. A spacecraft notionally remains docked to the ISS during its mission, but will oftentimes change “parking spots” on station to enable arrivals at the forward port on Harmony. 

Starliner punches through low level clouds during its initial ascent.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

The Starliner program has prospects beyond ISS in an age of commercial space. Blue Origin has named Boeing as one of their transportation and logistics providers for their Commercial Low Earth Orbit station Orbital Reef, alongside the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spaceplane. The fifth seat onboard Starliner could enable further international opportunities, bringing short duration astronauts to the ISS or other LEO destinations as part of handovers to capitalize greater access to space provided by commercial industry. For a significant portion of the spacecraft’s development history, these capabilities have been touted as a key selling point as NASA seeks to support a more commercial model for LEO access. These plans, in recent years, have been placed on the backburner as Boeing aims to certify the spacecraft for frequent, reliable NASA-centered operations.  

With Starliner on Station, several test objectives will be carried out to ensure that the vehicle can fulfill all the functions required of it, acting as not only a transportation system but a lifeboat for the crew in the event of an emergency. Once these objectives are met, the spacecraft will return home on June 14th, touching down in the American Southwest. With the completion of CFT in sight, both Boeing and NASA are eager to fly crews to the ISS with the true vision of the Commercial Crew Program in mind: two providers bringing access and resilience to anything the world could throw at it. Now, one final step remains in the quest to fulfill this vision, running the final gauntlet of the Crewed Flight Test to return Butch and Suni from their home away from home on orbit.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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