- Boeing is launching a high-stakes do-over spaceship flight for NASA on Thursday.
- NASA is funding the Starliner spaceship's development so it can fly astronauts someday.
- The ship previously failed to reach the International Space Station, leading to years of delays.
The spaceship, called the CST-100 Starliner, is set to launch into Earth's orbit with cargo, but no crew, on Thursday and fly to the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA gave Boeing a $4.2 billion contract for Starliner's development, so it was a disappointment when the spaceship's first flight never reached the ISS due to a software error. That was more than two years ago. After an array of investigations, upgrades, reviews, and delays, the company is finally ready to try again.
Starliner is stacked atop an Atlas V rocket and set to roar into the skies above Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 6:54 p.m. ET.
Watch the flight in NASA's livestream below.
After separating from the rocket, it should fall into orbit around Earth about 31 minutes after launch. The following evening, at 7:10 p.m. on Friday, it should dock to the ISS for the first time. Starliner is scheduled to remain on the station for four or five days before undocking, plummeting through the atmosphere, and parachuting to a landing in New Mexico.
Boeing fell behind SpaceX after errors thwarted its first flight
Boeing developed the Starliner spaceship as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which the Obama administration created in 2011 to restore the nation's human spaceflight capabilities. The Space Shuttle Program had ended, and NASA was turning to Russian Soyuz rockets to fly its astronauts to and from the ISS.
That reliance on Russian spacecraft continued for a decade as the Commercial Crew Program funded spaceship development at Boeing and its upstart competitor SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk in 2002.
The two companies were neck and neck until Starliner's first orbital test flight, in December 2019. The spaceship made it to orbit, but a software error caused it to burn through 25% of its fuel too soon after launch. That left Starliner without enough propellant to reach the ISS and return home, so Boeing commanded the spaceship to parachute back down to Earth. Reviews, upgrades, and further testing ensued.
In the meantime, SpaceX forged ahead. Its Crew Dragon spaceship flew its first astronauts to the ISS in May 2020. That was a test flight, and it went smoothly. A few months later, the company was ferrying its first routine astronaut crew to the ISS for a full six-month stay there. Now SpaceX is in the middle of its fourth astronaut mission for NASA, and it's flying tourists to space as well.
Starliner was almost ready to launch again in August 2021. It was stacked on top of the rocket at the launchpad when Boeing uncovered 13 glitching valves on the spaceship. Then it was back to the factory for further testing and upgrades.
If this weekend's flight goes well, Boeing will still have to analyze data from the mission and complete a series of certification reports and tests. Then Starliner must successfully complete a final test flight to the ISS — this time with astronauts on board.