Following a series of delays that set the program back years, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule successfully launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket Wednesday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is on its way to the International Space Station in the debut crewed mission for the privately developed spacecraft.

Starliner lifted off at 8:52 a.m. MDT, marking the first time since 1968′s Apollo 7 mission that a crewed mission launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, formerly known as the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, the flight’s commander and pilot, respectively, will perform tests of the spacecraft on their approximately 25-hour flight to the International Space Station, including the ability to manually fly the spaceship with hand controllers. After docking with the space station, currently expected Thursday at 10:15 a.m. MDT, Starliner and its crew will spend about a week at the space station before returning to Earth.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted Starliner’s launch marks only the sixth time a U.S. craft has made its debut crewed flight to space. Other instances include first flights for NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, as well the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Dragon Crew Capsule in 2020.

At a press conference following Wednesday’s launch, Nelson said the two veteran NASA astronauts will put Starliner through its paces ahead of certification to enter rotation for ferrying crew members back and forth to the International Space Station.

“Now Butch and Suni do what they do best,” Nelson said. “They’re test pilots and they’re going to test this thing from izzard to gizzard.”

At the conclusion of its mission, Starliner is due to make a ground landing at one of three possible locations, including the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah’s west desert; White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico; and Willcox, Arizona, according to NASA. Edwards Air Force Base in California is available as a contingency landing site. While a parachute-assisted ground landing is expected, the Starliner capsule is also capable of a water landing.

But on Wednesday, Nelson identified Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds as the “primary site” for Starliner’s return.

Boeing/NASA say helium leak a non-issue, set new Starliner launch date

The privatization of manned space travel

Back in 2014, NASA announced a pair of “groundbreaking” contracts, granted to Boeing and SpaceX, aiming to bring the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station, a task that was assumed by Russia’s Roscosmos following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, back to the U.S.

Boeing’s decadeslong partnership with NASA and jumbo $4.2 billion contract, compared to SpaceX’s $2.6 billion, led many to believe early on that the legacy aircraft and aerospace company would outpace Elon Musk’s scrappy space startup and be first to the finish line in NASA’s new Commercial Crew Transportation Capability effort.

But a series of delays allowed SpaceX to leapfrog Boeing in the work to develop a new crew transport vehicle and in 2020, SpaceX’s Dragon 2 Crew Capsule became the first U.S.-launched spaceflight to carry astronauts to the ISS since the final, 13-day shuttle mission performed by Atlantis.

Last month, Nelson said the Starliner test flight is a crucial step in NASA’s ongoing efforts to commercialize the business of space exploration, including the effort to replace the job of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

“This is all a part of our commercial activities,” Nelson said. “You’ve already seen commercial crew and cargo go to orbit with the Dragon and other cargo vehicles. This will give us that additional capacity because we always look for a backup.

“It’s a fixed-price contract. We share in the development costs but then the operation is a fixed-price contract. We’re doing that as we go to the moon as well.”

Boeing’s long journey to space


Boeing has had to overcome issues both within and without its Starliner program on the path to Wednesday’s launch, while SpaceX has now completed nine crewed missions to the International Space Station with its Dragon capsule and has a 10th in progress.

An uncrewed Starliner test flight in 2019 exposed software and communications issues that combined to derail an attempt to dock with the space station and almost led to the crew ship’s destruction, per CBS News.

A second test flight in 2021 was scrubbed after engineers discovered corroded valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system, pushing the next attempt to 2022. And while that flight was a success, potential problems with Starliner’s parachute lines were revealed as well as the need to replace about a mile of electrical tape that was found to be flammable.

Along the way, Boeing has had to navigate major issues in its commercial airliner division, including the tragic 737 Max plane crashes and, more recently, production and quality control issues that were highlighted when a Boeing plane flown by Alaska Airlines lost a door plug component in the passenger cabin during a flight.

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