Boeing Starliner launches for the first time carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS

Boeing launched its first Starliner flight with astronauts on Wednesday, beginning a crucial final flight test of the long-delayed spacecraft.

The launch took off at 10:52 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida with two NASA astronauts aboard. Starliner is carried by an United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket and bound for the International Space Station.

About 15 minutes after launch, the rocket released the Starliner capsule in orbit as planned, with the flight going as expected, according to mission control.

Boeing’s crew flight test aims to certify the Starliner system as capable of carrying NASA astronauts to-and-from the ISS.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying two astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner-1 Crew Flight Test (CFT), is launched on a mission to the International Space Station, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., June 5, 2024. 

Steve Nesius | Reuters

After launching, Starliner will fly in space for about 25 hours before a planned docking with the International Space Station at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday. The astronauts will then spend about a week on the ISS, focused on testing Starliner, before returning to Earth.

Wednesday’s liftoff comes after a series of attempts to launch the mission. On Saturday, a launch attempt was called off in the final minutes of the countdown due to a problem with one of the computer’s that provides ground support to the rocket. In early May, another attempt was called off due to an issue detected with the rocket itself.

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United Launch Alliance – or ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – replaced the rocket’s problematic valve after the May attempt and replaced a faulty part in the ground infrastructure computer after Saturday’s attempt.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft sits to Space Launch Complex 41 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 3, 2024. 

Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo | AFP | Getty Images

In between the two previous launch attempts, NASA and Boeing found a “small” helium leak in Starliner, causing the agency and company to perform another series of assessments. After analysis, NASA and Boeing believe the source of the leak is in the spacecraft’s helium propulsion system. But officials said after an investigation that the leak is “stable” and “not a safety of flight issue.”

Starliner’s crew debut has been delayed by years, while SpaceX’s competing Dragon capsule has flown astronauts for NASA regularly since 2020 under the agency’s Commercial Crew program. To date, Boeing has eaten $1.5 billion in costs due to Starliner setbacks and nearly $5 billion of NASA development funds.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying two astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner-1 Crew Flight Test (CFT), is launched on a mission to the International Space Station, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., June 5, 2024.

Joe Skipper | Reuters

The astronauts

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, right and Suni Williams wait for liftoff inside the Boeing Starliner capsule at Space Launch Complex 41 Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla.


Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are flying on Starliner, with the former serving as the spacecraft’s commander and the latter as its pilot.

Wilmore joined NASA in 2000 and has flown to space twice previously on the Space Shuttle and Russia’s Soyuz. Before NASA, Wilmore was a U.S. Navy pilot.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, left, and Suni Williams.

Credit: Kim Shiflett | NASA

Williams was selected by NASA in 1998 and has also flown to space twice before, on the Space Shuttle and then the Soyuz. Williams was also a Navy pilot, like Wilmore, before joining the space agency.

The rocket and capsule

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is seen on the launch pad of Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday, May 30, 2024.

Isaac Watson | NASA

Starliner launches on ULA’s Atlas V. The rocket debuted in 2002, and the Starliner crew flight test represents its 100th launch.

The capsule itself is built to carry as many as four NASA astronauts per flight and more than 200 pounds of research and cargo. The spacecraft lands using a parachute and airbag system. Starliner is reusable, with each capsule designed to fly as many as 10 missions.

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