Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (2024)

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Kenneth Chang

Here’s what to know about Starliner’s flight.

After two trips to the launchpad that did not end up going to space, two NASA astronauts finally headed to orbit on Wednesday in a vehicle built by Boeing, the aerospace giant. The 15-foot-wide capsule, Starliner, provides NASA with an additional option for flying crews to and from the International Space Station, more than a decade after the space shuttles were retired. The launch is the latest step in NASA’s efforts to rely more heavily on the private sector for its human spaceflight program.

Starliner’s first trip with astronauts on board comes four years and six days after SpaceX, the other company that NASA has hired to provide astronaut rides, launched its first mission with astronauts aboard. A series of costly delays repeatedly kept astronauts from flying on the Boeing vehicle, while SpaceX, once seen as an upstart, has since flown 13 crews to orbit.

Here’s what you need to know about the flight:

  • At 10:52 a.m. Eastern time, the engines of an Atlas V rocket ignited, lifting the Starliner spacecraft on an arcing path to space. Wednesday’s countdown at a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., was flawless, proceeding without a hitch.

  • The only issue that has popped up since launching is with a “sublimator” that provides cooling in Starliner during the ascent to orbit. The device used more water than expected. Officials said it will not affect the current mission. After reaching orbit, Starliner switched to a different cooling system, a radiator, as planned.

  • The two crew members on board Starliner are Butch Wilmore, the commander, and Suni Williams, the pilot. They are experienced NASA astronauts; Mr. Wilmore has spent 167 days in space, and Ms. Williams 322. They will spend about a day in orbit before docking with the space station on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. They will stay until at least June 14, maybe longer, depending on weather at the landing sites and testing of the spacecraft.

  • Starliner is years behind schedule, as the work by Boeing and NASA to confirm that the spacecraft was safe to fly stretched far longer than expected. Technical pitfalls included inadequate software testing, corroded propellant valves, flammable tape, a key component in the parachute system that turned out to be weaker than designed, and, most recently, a helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system. Boeing fixed and studied the problems, allowing Starliner to get back to the launchpad.

  • The delays have left Boeing facing more than $1.4 billion in unexpected charges. The launch attempt comes during a tough 2024 for the aerospace giant. Just days into the year, a panel on the body of a Boeing 737 Max 9 blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight. The pilots safely landed the plane, and there were no major injuries, but the episode has had widespread repercussions for the company, particularly its aviation division.

June 5, 2024, 2:56 p.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 2:56 p.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

A ‘milestone’ flight carried two NASA astronauts in Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

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After two trips to the launchpad that did not end up going to space, two NASA astronauts finally headed to orbit on Wednesday in a vehicle built by Boeing, the aerospace giant.

The first trip of Starliner, a 15-foot-wide capsule, with astronauts on board comes four years and six days after SpaceX, the other company that NASA has hired to provide astronaut rides, launched its first mission with astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing is now set to also provide that service, but a series of costly delays repeatedly kept astronauts from flying the company’s vehicle earlier. SpaceX, once seen as an upstart, has flown 13 crews to orbit in total.

The long awaited flight of the Boeing vehicle is the latest step in NASA’s efforts to rely more heavily on the private sector for its human spaceflight program.

“This is another milestone in this extraordinary history of NASA,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator said during a news conference after the launch.

When Starliner arrives at the space station on Thursday, it will join a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule already docked there. NASA officials have steadfastly said that they want to have two different American spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to orbit.

“We always like to have a backup,” Mr. Nelson said. “That makes it safer for our astronauts.”

If the vehicle’s mission goes well, it will also provide some good news for Boeing, whose aviation safety record is under heavy scrutiny after a side panel of an Alaska Airlines jet blew out during a flight earlier this year.

The space division of Boeing has also been under pressure, with work on Starliner stretching years longer than either the company or NASA had expected. Technical pitfalls included inadequate software testing, corroded propellant valves, flammable tape and a key component in the parachute system that turned out to be weaker than expected.

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A few minutes before launch, Butch Wilmore, the mission commander, said: “Let’s put some fire in this rocket. Let’s push it to the heavens.”

Suni Williams, the other member of the crew who serves as pilot, added, “Let’s go, Calypso, take us to space and back,” referring to the name she had given the capsule, after the ship used by the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

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“Suni and I are honored to share this dream of spaceflight with each and every one of you. So with that, let’s get going, and let’s put some fire in this rocket and let’s push it to the heavens, while these tough Americans have prepared it to be.” “Let’s go, Calypso. Take us to space and back.”

Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (3)

At 10:52 a.m. Eastern time, the engines of an Atlas V rocket ignited, lifting the Starliner spacecraft on an arcing path to space. The launch and early parts of today’s flight in orbit provided a welcome relief, unfolding smoothly.

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“Houston, Starliner. “Roger.”

Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (4)

“I’m smiling, believe me,” said Mark Nappi, the Boeing official in charge of Starliner. “But it’s a little bit of controlled emotion, because there’s a lot of phases to this mission. And we just completed the first one.”

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“You got a good throttle up.” “Good throttle.” “Good SRB burnout.” “Good SRB.”

Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (5)

A minor glitch involved a system that provides cooling during the ride to orbit. The cooling system, known as a sublimator, used a bit more water than expected. Once in orbit, the spacecraft switched to a different cooling system, a radiator, and while engineers will investigate what happened, it will not affect the mission.

Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams are scheduled to dock with the station at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday.

Along the way, Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams will take time to test out manually flying the spacecraft, something that is usually not necessary except in emergencies. The life support systems will also be fully checked.

The astronauts will then spend at least eight days at the space station before returning to Earth. The mission has 87 test objectives altogether. “There’s a lot of, I’ll call them ergonomic types of flight test objectives,” Mr. Nappi said. “How do the seats fit? How do the suits work? How do the displays look?”

After the mission, NASA and Boeing will review data from the flight to complete certification of Starliner. The spacecraft would then be ready to begin once-a-year operational flights to ferry NASA crews for six-month stays at the space station. Each Starliner capsule — Boeing has two for orbital missions — is designed for 10 missions.

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Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (6)

The path to Wednesday’s flight was years in the making.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, the rocket company run by Elon Musk, to build replacements for the space shuttles that had taken astronauts to and from the space station before being retired in 2011. NASA had started paying Russia to fly its astronauts to orbit on Soyuz rockets.

Congress was skeptical, repeatedly cutting money that NASA had sought for the commercial crew program. At the time, SpaceX was ascendant, but was not the dominant force it has become today in the rocket launch industry. The selection of Boeing helped reassure lawmakers that NASA was making a sound investment.

NASA originally said Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could be ready by 2017.

Both companies took longer than planned, a not uncommon occurrence in the aerospace industry.

But in December 2019, Boeing appeared to be in the homestretch. Then a test of Starliner with no astronauts on board went awry because of software problems, and a planned docking was called off. NASA labeled the flight a “high-visibility close call,” because the software flaws could have led to the destruction of the spacecraft if they had not been fixed before re-entry.

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Boeing and NASA decided to repeat the uncrewed test, but that test was delayed by corroded propellant valves and Starliner did not launch again until May 2022.

More issues then emerged. Protective tape that was wrapped around wiring insulation turned out to be flammable, and a key but weak component in the parachute system could have broken if Starliner’s three parachutes did not deploy properly.

Those delays cost Boeing $1.4 billion, and while Starliner remained on the ground, SpaceX launched nine crewed missions for NASA (one, Crew-8, is currently docked at the station) and four additional commercial missions with non-NASA passengers aboard.

This year’s round of launch attempts started on May 6. That flight was scuttled by a misbehaving valve on the Atlas V rocket. A small helium leak was then discovered in the Starliner’s propulsion system, leading to several weeks of investigation.

A second launch attempt on Saturday ticked down to 3 minutes and 50 seconds before liftoff, until the computers that autonomously handle the final parts of the launch sequence encountered a problem and halted the countdown.

Over the next few days, technicians replaced a faulty power component, setting the stage for the successful launch on Wednesday.

Niraj Chokshi contributed reporting.

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June 5, 2024, 1:34 p.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 1:34 p.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The post-launch news conference is over. For the next day, you won’t see any live video of Starliner. Although there are cameras aboard, there is no communications system for sending it back to Earth in real time. Instead, it will have to be downloaded after Starliner docks at the International Space Station. NASA TV coverage of the spacecraft’s arrival will start at 11:15 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday. Docking is scheduled for 12:15 p.m.

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June 5, 2024, 1:12 p.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 1:12 p.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Starliner will remain at the International Space Station until at least June 14. It might stay longer depending on weather at the landing site and how testing of the spacecraft goes.

“So far, the vehicle is doing great,” said Steve Stich, the program manager at NASA for the commercial crew program.

June 5, 2024, 12:50 p.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 12:50 p.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The only issue that has popped up so far during the spaceflight is with the “sublimator,” which provided cooling in Starliner during its ascent to orbit. It used more water than expected. That’s something to investigate, but it’s not a big problem that affects the current mission. Once in orbit, Starliner switched to a different cooling system, a radiator, as planned.

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June 5, 2024, 12:37 p.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 12:37 p.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

A NASA post-launch news conference is beginning. “This is another milestone in this extraordinary history of NASA,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, says.

June 5, 2024, 12:28 p.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 12:28 p.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Starliner is currently at a slightly lower altitude than the International Space Station, which means it is moving faster than the space station and catching up. As it gets closer, it will raise its orbit to match speed.

June 5, 2024, 11:51 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:51 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, took some potshots at Boeing and Starliner last month. Today, he was more complimentary.

Congratulations on a successful launch! https://t.co/DiwBo6LheW

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 5, 2024

June 5, 2024, 11:56 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:56 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Musk also has another major spaceflight on his mind. Early on Thursday morning, his company SpaceX will conduct the fourth test flight of Starship, its large, next-generation reusable spacecraft that NASA is relying on to get to the moon. You can look back at the third flight here.

June 5, 2024, 11:41 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:41 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

NASA has concluded its official live coverage of the Starliner launch. But if you can’t get enough, NASA will be providing ongoing video coverage of Wilmore and Williams’ flight to the International Space Station, which will take about 24 hours. Docking is scheduled for 12:15 p.m. on Thursday.

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June 5, 2024, 11:34 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:34 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

This mission is essentially a shakedown flight to verify that the spacecraft is ready for humans. Some systems, notably life support and manual flying, cannot be tested until astronauts are aboard. NASA will use data from this flight to complete certification. If all goes well, that will be finished later this year, and the first operational flight will be in Feburary.

June 5, 2024, 11:26 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:26 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The burn has completed. Flight controllers at launch control are clapping and shaking hands. Starliner is now on its way to the International Space Station. It is scheduled to dock there tomorrow at 12:15 p.m. Eastern time.

June 5, 2024, 11:24 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:24 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Starliner’s orbital insertion burn has started.

June 5, 2024, 11:24 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:24 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Suni Williams is the first woman to take part in the test flight of an American spacecraft taking astronauts to space for the first time. The first four such test flights — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttles — preceded any American women going to space. The fifth, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in 2020, carried Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Starliner is the sixth such spacecraft.

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June 5, 2024, 11:23 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:23 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

How NASA ended up paying for private rides to orbit.

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NASA owned the space shuttles.

The shuttles were built by Rockwell International, but NASA’s engineers largely dictated the design, and once the shuttles were delivered, they became the property of the U.S. government — launched and operated by NASA.

That was NASA’s old way of doing business.

Nowadays, the space agency’s human spaceflight program is trying to do more by doing less on its own.

The Boeing Starliner is the latest step in that direction. NASA does not own Starliner but is, in essence, renting the spacecraft from Boeing for about a week so that two NASA astronauts can get to the space station.

The rationale is that private companies can come up with innovative solutions that are better and cheaper, and the companies can then sell those same products to customers other than NASA — a win-win.

That formula has certainly proved to work with SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk. When SpaceX first won a NASA contract, it had not yet successfully sent anything to space. NASA was key in the development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which not only now launches cargo and astronauts for NASA but also has captured a domineering slice of the commercial satellite-launching business.

In 2014, NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX flew its first crewed mission in 2020 and has now launched people to orbit 13 times, including four commercial missions for non-NASA customers.

For Boeing, however, Starliner has turned out to be a long-delayed, costly endeavor, even though NASA is paying more to Boeing than to SpaceX. Back in 2010, Boeing announced that it planned to fly space tourists to the space station. Now, Boeing says it is focused on NASA’s business — six operational flights after the test mission.

“The private astronaut missions are of an interest later in the decade,” said Mark Nappi, program manager of the Starliner program at Boeing.

Despite the mixed results for the companies, NASA has expanded its commercial approach. SpaceX and Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, have contracts to build landers to carry NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon in the coming years.

NASA is also looking farther out into the solar system. Last month, the space agency commissioned nine companies to study how they might provide services for future science missions to Mars.

June 5, 2024, 11:14 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:14 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

During the launch, the astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, used paper checklists, which are simpler and easier to read than digital versions. Now that they’re in orbit, they’ve switched to tablets.

June 5, 2024, 11:10 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:10 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Some of the astronauts’ luggage is not going to make it to the space station.

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On Friday, NASA announced some shuffling of the cargo that Starliner is taking to the space station.

The astronauts on board, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, will give up some personal items during their short stay in orbit to make room for a spare part for a water recycling system on the International Space Station.

The space station receives regular deliveries of supplies and equipment. Much of it arrives packed into cargo vehicles launched from the United States and Russia. That includes a Russian Progress spacecraft that docked Saturday morning with about three tons of food, fuel and other supplies.

Other times, items are packed along with astronaut crews headed to space.

On Wednesday last week, a pump failed in the system on the space station that collects and processes the astronauts’ urine, the first step in turning it back into drinkable water. That pump had been expected to last until the fall, and a replacement was set to be delivered by a cargo spacecraft in August.

“It failed a little bit early, which put us in a position where we’d have to store an awful lot of urine,” Dana Weigel, NASA’s program manager for the space station, said during a news conference on Friday. “Obviously, adding two more crew members to that further constrains the storage capability we have on board.”

The pump equipment, which weighs about 150 pounds, was flown to the Kennedy Space Center and loaded onto Starliner. Two suitcases of clothing and toiletries for Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams were removed to make room for it.

“The key for the flight was not to perturb the mass properties,” Ms. Weigel said.

The astronauts will use supplies and clothing already at the space station during their scheduled stay of about a week.

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June 5, 2024, 11:08 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:08 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Starliner has successfully separated from the Atlas V second stage. In about 16 minutes, Starliner will fire its thrusters to put itself in a stable orbit around Earth.

June 5, 2024, 11:05 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:05 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The second stage engines have shut down, right on time. Three minutes of coasting before Starliner separates from the rocket.

June 5, 2024, 11:03 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:03 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

It is now 96 miles above Earth, moving at more than 15,000 miles per hour.

June 5, 2024, 11:02 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:02 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

To reach orbit — that is, to go fast enough in order to not fall back down to Earth — Starliner will need to reach about 17,500 miles per hour. Everything continues to go well.

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“You got a good throttle up.” “Good throttle.” “Good SRB burnout.” “Good SRB.”

Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (27)

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June 5, 2024, 11:00 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 11:00 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The spacecraft is now traveling 12,600 miles per hour.

June 5, 2024, 10:58 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:58 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The first stage of the Atlas V rocket has done its job, shutting down and dropping off, and the two engines of the second stage have ignited.

June 5, 2024, 10:55 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:55 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

The solid rocket boosters have expended and dropped off. Everything continues to look good.

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Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (31)

June 5, 2024, 10:52 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:52 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Liftoff!

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“Houston, Starliner. “Roger.”

Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (33)

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June 5, 2024, 10:51 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:51 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

One minute until liftoff.

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June 5, 2024, 10:37 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:37 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Here’s the revised flight plan for the Starliner’s journey.

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If all goes well, an Atlas V rocket carrying Starliner will lift off on Wednesday at 10:52 a.m. Eastern time from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. It must launch at the exact moment — what is known as an instantaneous launch window — that would allow it to catch up with the International Space Station.

Starliner will detach from the second stage of the rocket 15 minutes after launch. Sixteen minutes later, Starliner will fire its thrusters to enter a stable orbit around Earth.

Starliner will take more than a day to meet up with the space station. During that time, two NASA astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, will perform tests, including manually flying the spacecraft.

On Thursday, the spacecraft will slowly approach the station, with docking scheduled for 12:15 p.m. Eastern time.

Starliner, along with Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams, will stay at the space station for about a week, allowing for more tests of the spacecraft and its systems.

“We’re pretty much on a timeline, making sure we’re going to get everything done,” Ms. Williams said during a Q. and A. session before the postponed launch attempt on May 6.

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June 5, 2024, 10:21 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:21 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Does NASA need another ride to the space station? Elon Musk says no.

As SpaceX noted on X last Thursday, May 30 was the fourth anniversary of its equivalent of this week’s Starliner mission — the first launch of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with two NASA astronauts aboard.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of Falcon 9 launching @NASA’s Demo-2 mission to the @space_station, returning human spaceflight to the United States pic.twitter.com/jzwyCwam3l

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 30, 2024

The space agency boisterously celebrated the achievement, which ended NASA’s nearly decade-long dependence on Russian Soyuz rockets for getting its astronauts to orbit.

That has rendered the upcoming debut of Starliner almost an afterthought, with Boeing seemingly light-years behind SpaceX.

Since the first test flight in 2020, SpaceX has flown eight operational missions for NASA, each taking four astronauts to the International Space Station for six-month stays. The SpaceX missions have unfolded smoothly and reliably at a cost much lower than what Boeing will charge.

So why does NASA continue to spend time, effort and money on Starliner? Why not cancel that contract and rely solely on SpaceX?

Indeed, before Starliner’s scrubbed launch attempt on May 6, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, posted on his social media site, X, “The world doesn’t need another capsule.”

In a separate posting, Mr. Musk sharply criticized Boeing. “Although Boeing got $4.2 billion to develop an astronaut capsule and SpaceX only got $2.6 billion, SpaceX finished 4 years sooner,” he wrote. “Too many non-technical managers at Boeing.”

A Boeing spokeswoman declined to comment.

But while Mr. Musk might think Starliner is superfluous, NASA officials have often said it is important to have contingency options if something goes wrong.

“This will give us that additional capability because we always look for a backup,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said during a news conference on Friday.

Dana Weigel, program manager of the space station for NASA, gave the example of when a Soyuz docked at the space station suffered a coolant leak in 2022.

Had the Soyuz been the only means of transportation, that could have led to a situation where the lives of the astronauts were genuinely at risk. But a SpaceX Crew Dragon was also docked there, providing a backup.

“If we had to bring the whole crew home on a SpaceX Dragon, we could have done that,” Ms. Weigel said.

For NASA, the more options it has, the better. If Crew Dragon or Starliner suffered a failure and were grounded, the other would still be available. That lessens the possibility that the United States might again have to rely on Russians and the whims of President Vladimir V. Putin for launching people to space.

“The more dissimilar capabilities you have, the more robust you are for dealing with issues,” Ms. Weigel said.

SpaceX has also launched four private astronaut missions using the same Crew Dragons. The first one, Inspiration4, was financed by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur. While that flight went only to orbit and not to the I.S.S., Axiom Space of Houston has since flown three private astronaut missions to the space station, with a fourth that might launch as soon as August.

Mr. Isaacman is also planning to return to space later this year with another Crew Dragon mission, called Polaris Dawn, which is aiming to perform the first spacewalk during a commercial spaceflight.

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June 5, 2024, 10:01 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 10:01 a.m. ET

Niraj Chokshi

Reporting on Boeing and other companies in the aviation industry.

Starliner has cost Boeing $1.4 billion more than it planned to spend.

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Wednesday’s Starliner launch has been almost a decade in the making, but it has not been an easy ride for Boeing. In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX, which received far less funding, carried astronauts into orbit for the first time in 2020. Boeing hopes to achieve that milestone on Thursday.

Along the way, the aerospace giant has faced many setbacks, including years of delays and more than $1.4 billion in unexpected charges. In securities filings, Boeing has blamed engineering issues and supply chain problems; higher-than-expected costs for development, certification and testing; and even a problem identified in testing by a parachute supplier.

“Building rockets and spacecraft is no trivial task,” said Ron Epstein, a financial analyst at Bank of America. “It’s just taken Boeing longer and cost them more to do than they thought.”

The setbacks underscore a broader frustration for Boeing’s defense and space business: fixed-price contracts, under which contractors bear responsibility for higher-than-expected costs. Under a cost-plus contract, on the other hand, the government is responsible for covering unexpected expenses.

Fixed-price contracts are financially risky for companies if costs rise or delays materialize — and Boeing has struggled under them in recent years. Such contracts accounted for about 58 percent of the revenues coming into its defense and space unit last year, and the company has said that it is working to limit its reliance on them. (SpaceX, by contrast, has thrived on fixed-price contracts.)

“We have a couple of fixed-price development programs we have to just finish and never do them again,” Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive, said at an investor conference last summer. “It doesn’t work for us, and it doesn’t work for our customers, in my not-so-humble opinion.”

Although the company has faced delays, a Boeing representative said in a statement in May that the company remained “committed to providing NASA with a crew access capability to low Earth orbit” and that it “will continue to fulfill our contractual obligations.”

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June 5, 2024, 9:38 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 9:38 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

Boeing’s Starliner capsule has had a long, difficult road to human spaceflight.

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In late 2019, Boeing appeared to have a good chance at beating SpaceX to become the first private U.S. company to take astronauts to orbit.

But in the four and a half years since, a lot has gone wrong. Here’s a timeline of the setbacks that have caused Boeing to fall so far behind SpaceX in providing American astronauts a ride to low Earth orbit.

December 2019: A ‘high-visibility close call’

On Dec. 20, 2019, Boeing looked to be in the homestretch.

A Starliner capsule — the same spacecraft that is to take the NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the space station on Saturday — was on the launchpad atop an Atlas V rocket.

The test flight to the space station had no astronauts on board, and its mission was to assess the spacecraft’s navigation, propulsion and docking systems. If the flight were to pass this last technical hurdle, a trip with astronauts aboard could take place within months.

The Atlas V rocket launched flawlessly, releasing Starliner.

And then the mission immediately went awry.

The spacecraft’s clock was set to the wrong time, making Starliner think it was in the wrong location. The capsule fired its thrusters to try to get to where it thought it should be. At the same time, a communications glitch thwarted efforts by flight controllers at mission control to diagnose and fix the problem.

Starliner used up too much propellant, and the planned docking at the space station was called off.

During the troubleshooting process, Boeing engineers discovered another software error that would have fired the wrong thrusters during a maneuver leading up to re-entry. NASA labeled the incident a “high-visibility close call” that could have destroyed the spacecraft if the errors had not been patched from the ground during the flight.

An investigation revealed multiple failures in Boeing’s processes that should have caught the mistakes before the launch. An exhaustive audit reviewed one million lines of software code.

NASA officials admitted that maybe they had placed too much trust in Boeing, which had decades of experience working with NASA.

Summer 2021: Corrosion on the launchpad

NASA and the company decided that a second uncrewed test was needed before a flight could be made with astronauts aboard. The spacecraft was rolled onto the launchpad in July, but a problem aboard the space station prompted a delay to early August. Then, ahead of an Aug. 4 launch attempt, mission managers discovered corroded propellant valves on Starliner that would not open. The test flight was called off, and another lengthy round of troubleshooting followed.

May 2022: Another launch, more problems

The second uncrewed test finally launched on May 19, 2022.

During a maneuver to put Starliner in a stable orbit, two thrusters failed, but the spacecraft was able to compensate. It proceeded to dock at the space station and returned to Earth successfully.

July 2023: Parachutes and tape

Before the test flight with astronauts aboard, then scheduled for July 2023, two more issues emerged. Protective tape that was wrapped around wiring insulation turned out to be flammable, and a key component in the parachute system was weaker than designed, meaning it could break if Starliner’s three parachutes did not deploy properly.

About a mile of the tape was replaced, and the parachute design was upgraded, strengthened and retested.

May 2024: Still not ready to fly

“We’ve been taking our time to go through everything methodically, because it is a test flight and we want it to go well,” Steve Stich, the program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program, said during a news conference on May 3.

Mark Nappi, the program manager at Boeing for Starliner, said: “We are ready to perform the test flight. And I’ve never felt readier on any mission that I’ve ever participated in.”

But Starliner was still not quite ready.

The countdown on May 6 was proceeding smoothly until a balky valve on the second stage of the Atlas V rocket — unrelated to Starliner — started acting up, vibrating audibly about 40 times per second.

The launch was called off, and the rocket needed to be taken off the launchpad for the valve to be replaced. That work was completed within a few days.

But a thornier issue emerged.

As the propellants were drained from the tanks of the Atlas V rocket, engineers discovered a small helium leak in Starliner’s propulsion system.

Helium, an inert gas, is used to push propellants to the thrusters. If too much is lost, the thrusters may not work properly.

The leak was traced to a seal on a helium line leading to one of 28 small thrusters known as reaction control system engines.

“Much like you would have on any piece of your plumbing at home, a faucet or anything like that,” Mr. Stich said during a telephone news conference on May 24. “There’s a seal that keeps that interface tight.”

Tests showed no leaks in the seals leading to the other 27 reaction control system engines, and engineers were confident that the single leak was manageable. There are no plans to replace the seal, which would require pulling Starliner off the Atlas V rocket and would lead to an even lengthier delay for the flight.

“We could handle this particular leak if that leak rate were to grow even up to 100 times,” Mr. Stich said.

The helium leak led NASA and Boeing to take a wider look at Starliner’s propulsion system, which revealed a “design vulnerability,” Mr. Stich said. If a series of unlikely failures occurred, the spacecraft might not be able to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth.

If there were problems with the larger engines intended to be fired for a maneuver to drop the spacecraft out of orbit, one of the backup plans was to use eight of the smaller thrusters. However, the analysis showed that an additional failure might mean there would be only four available.

The engineers then developed another backup plan to bring Starliner out of orbit with only the four thrusters. NASA and Boeing officials said that, after weeks of studying the problem, they were confident they could manage problems that might arise from the leak.

On Saturday, Mr. Wilmore and Ms. Williams were ready to fly. Starliner was ready too, but the computers controlling the final minutes of the countdown encountered a problem, and the launch was called off again.

Everyone is back for another attempt on Wednesday.

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June 5, 2024, 8:32 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 8:32 a.m. ET

Niraj Chokshi

Space is a small but important part of Boeing’s business.

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Boeing is best known for its airplanes, but it has a long history of space-related work. That includes substantial contributions to the first crewed mission to the moon and to the International Space Station.

Today, the company is helping to build an essential component of NASA’s Space Launch System, or S.L.S., a rocket designed to carry spacecraft, cargo and astronauts to the moon. In 2022, the agency successfully launched Artemis I, a test flight with no astronauts aboard, which included a mammoth booster stage built by Boeing. The booster helped the rocket to reach orbit. The company is working on similar sections for future missions involving S.L.S., too. The next, Artemis II, could send four astronauts around the moon in 2025.

In addition to that work, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have a joint venture known as United Launch Alliance, or U.L.A., which was founded in 2006 and employs about 2,700 people. That company’s rockets have sent more than 100 satellites into space, and its Atlas V vehicle is lifting the Starliner into orbit on Wednesday.

Boeing also makes satellites of all sizes for government and commercial operators, as well as missile warning and other satellite systems.

That space-related work is distinct from Boeing’s other endeavors. The company is divided into three units: one focused on making commercial airplanes; another focused on making military aircraft, missiles and space programs; and a third that provides services and maintenance to Boeing’s customers.

The units share some broad similarities, but are run independently, with different processes, products and cultures. Much of the company’s commercial-plane assembly takes place in the Seattle area or in North Charleston, S.C. Work on Boeing’s space programs is more diffuse and carried out across the country, including in Alabama, California, Louisiana, Colorado, Texas and Florida.

“They’re basically businesses within a business,” Ken Herbert, an analyst with RBC Capital, said of Boeing’s space programs.

Those programs, including Boeing’s work on Starliner, are prestigious, but still account for a small fraction of the business generated by Boeing’s defense unit, which itself is smaller than its commercial airplane business.

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June 5, 2024, 7:47 a.m. ET

June 5, 2024, 7:47 a.m. ET

Kenneth Chang

What is Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft?

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At first glance, the Boeing Starliner looks much like the command module used by NASA during the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and the 1970s.

That’s not a random coincidence. The ability of that cone-shaped vehicle to keep astronauts safe during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere is well documented.

At 15 feet in diameter, Starliner is slightly bigger than the Apollo spacecraft. The capsule and the service module — the part of the spacecraft that provides power and propulsion during the flight before being discarded just before landing — are together 16.5 feet in height.

The spacecraft is large enough to carry up to seven astronauts, but NASA missions will carry a crew of four. Boeing has the option of selling a fifth seat to a private customer who wants to tag along.

Each Starliner capsule is designed to be used for up to 10 missions; by contrast, the service module — the cylindrical component below the capsule, containing power, propulsion and life support systems — burns up in the atmosphere, and a new one is needed for each trip.

Boeing has built three Starliner capsules. The first was used only to demonstrate the ability to quickly fly astronauts to safety in case of an emergency on the launchpad. That capsule will not be used for any missions to orbit.

The Starliner used for this mission previously flew in space in 2020 during the first test flight with no crew, which was cut short because of technical problems. Suni Williams, the pilot for this mission, has named the spacecraft Calypso, a nod to the research ship used by Jacques Cousteau, a French undersea explorer.

The third Starliner, still unnamed, was used for the second test without crew in 2022 and will fly four astronauts to the International Space Station for the first operational mission, scheduled for next year.

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Starliner Sets Off on 1st Flight With NASA Astronauts Aboard (2024)

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