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Boeing’s Starliner set to fly astronauts for the first time on May 6

Boeing’s Starliner is a go for launch.

Leaders from NASA and Boeing told reporters that the first crewed Starliner mission, which will see the capsule carry two astronauts to the International Space Station, is moving ahead toward its historic May 6 launch date.

NASA and Boeing concluded that the capsule is ready for launch after completing a critical flight test review on Thursday. Barring no issues, astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will board Starliner on the evening of May 6 and take their ride on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to space.

Around 24 hours later, the two astronauts will arrive at the ISS, where they’ll stay for about a week. Starliner will stay docked with the station; the duo will use it to return to Earth. A total of five parachutes will slow Starliner from ultra-fast orbital speeds to enable a soft landing somewhere in the western U.S.

This will mark Starliner’s second flight to the ISS: The first, an uncrewed mission called Orbital Flight Test-2, took place in May 2022. If Boeing and NASA are unable to meet the May 6 date, there are additional launch opportunities on May 7, 10 and 11.

The significance of the mission cannot be understated. NASA established the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in 2011 to purchase astronaut transportation services from private industry; the agency selected SpaceX and NASA under a multibillion-dollar deal. But as opposed to SpaceX, which has completed all six missions under the original contract plus more, Boeing’s Starliner has been badly delayed by numerous technical issues.

Boeing has been hit by over $1.5 billion in overrun costs due to those delays. The aerospace giant has been affected by a slew of other near-catastrophes as of late, with the company facing regulatory scrutiny due to screwups in its commercial airplane unit. Earlier this year, it was announced that Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun would step down at the end of 2024.

For NASA, a new spacecraft means doubling America’s astronaut transportation resources and introducing a much-needed degree of redundancy to the agency’s human spaceflight program. If Boeing nails this test, Starliner will achieve its final certification and can begin regular missions under the CCP contract.

NASA determined that the probability of loss-of-crew with this Starliner mission is 1-in-295, which is above NASA’s required 1-in-270 odds. (A NASA representative did not have equivalent data for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.)

“The lives of our crew members, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, are at stake,” NASA’s associate administrator, Jim Free, said. “We don’t take that lightly at all.”

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