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The long, thorny history of Boeing's Starliner spaceship

Starliner approaching the International Space Station

If someone had told NASA a decade ago that SpaceX would build a new ride for astronauts to get to the International Space Station before Boeing, the space agency might have laughed that person out of the room. 

NASA contracted both companies in 2014 to make spaceships. SpaceX, considered a startup at the time, not only got its passenger spaceship to the finish line first, it has carried 50 people to orbit, while Boeing has continued toiling with Starliner, the company's competing project that has yet to reach certification. Since SpaceX's Crew Dragon went into service in 2020, Boeing has played a veritable game of Whac-A-Mole trying to address one engineering problem after another, most recently flammable interior tape and parachute lines that didn't meet safety standards.

Why the legacy company has struggled with the spacecraft and suffered delays isn't all that clear. Answers from Boeing leaders have been at times stunningly opaque. 

"There's a number of things that were surprises along the way that we had to overcome, so I can't pick out any one that I would point to," said Mark Nappi, the company's program manager for Starliner. "This is a typical design and development type of program, and we've done a good job of getting us to this point."

But soon Boeing will have its chance at a redemption story. For the first time, NASA astronauts will fly inside the spaceship to orbit. Test pilots Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Sunita "Suni" Williams, who have each spent six months in space, will take Starliner to the station, a lab about 250 miles above Earth. 

The launch atop an Atlas V rocket is scheduled for the night of May 6 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Barring bad weather or other last-minute snags, the spaceship could blast off as early as 10:34 p.m. ET.

"If something happens to Dragon, God forbid, then we're back to asking the Russians for rides. I'm not sure that the American public has the stomach for that."

The crew will spend about eight days at the station, checking out all the spacecraft systems, before climbing back in for the ride home. Rather than plop the astronauts into the ocean as SpaceX does, Boeing will bring them home to the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. A system of parachutes and air bags will cushion the capsule's desert landing.

NASA has confidence in Boeing

Though a harrowing incident involving a panel blowing off a plane mid-air has sullied the Boeing name recently, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said he felt assured the troubles afflicting the company's aircraft division weren't a concern for this spacecraft, overseen by the company's defense and space division.

"This is a clean spaceship, and it's ready to launch," he said.

Starliner landing in New Mexico desert
The Starliner spaceship successfully landed in a New Mexico desert during an uncrewed test. Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images

Despite Starliner's prior challenges, Wilmore and Williams said they are unfazed by the string of mishaps and setbacks. 

"If we could go back just three years and talk about the capabilities of the spacecraft, what it was then, as envisioned, and then where it's at now, after these discoveries and the rectification of fixing all of those issues that we found, it's really leaps and bounds forward," Wilmore told Mashable during a news conference this week.

Williams added that they've talked through the concerning headlines with their families. 

"I think they're happy and proud that we've been part of the process to fix it all," she said.  

NASA crew preparing for Starliner launch
NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Sunita "Suni" Williams will be the first people to fly inside the Boeing Starliner. Credit: Paul Hennessy / Anadolu via Getty Images

Why NASA outsourced spacecraft construction

Ten years ago, NASA hired billionaire Elon Musk's relatively new rocket company and Boeing, paying SpaceX just $2.6 billion and the latter $4.2 billion, to build spaceships. The plan was to create a commercial space taxi market for getting astronauts to the station. 

And it made sense to award Boeing a hefty contract: It had already begun some work on a spacecraft, and the contractor is intertwined with NASA's history of human space exploration, beginning with Project Mercury. Those close ties were reiterated as recently as a week ago by Dana Weigel, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, who reminded reporters about Boeing's role in the space station itself. 

"This isn't the only Boeing-built spacecraft we'll operate from Houston's mission control," she said. "We are looking forward to [Starliner], but we're also really proud to be operating the ISS, which is the longest continuously operational spacecraft in human history."

Starliner riding atop an Atlas V rocket
Starliner will be launched with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA via Getty Images

Once the agency retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA was forced to tag along on Russian Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan to get crew into space. That might have been fine, but the United States was paying upward of $86 million per ride.

"We've not had the friendliest of relationships with Russia, particularly recently, and the head of their space agency said, 'Well, NASA can go get itself a big trampoline,'" Sven Bilén, an aerospace engineering professor at Penn State, told Mashable. "As an American, the inability for us to get to space on our own spacecraft was, to me, an embarrassment." 

The need for Russia to get Americans to space ended in 2020 when SpaceX's Crew Dragon had passed all of its tests for certification, but NASA never intended to have all its eggs in Musk's basket. After the Columbia disaster, it took 2.5 years for the United States to return to spaceflight. The agency has wanted at least two vendors, so there is always a backup if one were grounded for any reason, even as the space station program nears retirement in 2031. 

Butch Wilmore practicing for Starliner launch
Barry "Butch" Wilmore is the commander of the first crewed flight for the Starliner spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The need for a plan B became clear last year when a leak on the station forced the space agency to consider a contingency of loading all the astronauts in one SpaceX spaceship to get home, should an emergency evacuation be necessary. 

"If something happens to Dragon, God forbid, then we're back to asking the Russians for rides," Bilén said. "I'm not sure that the American public has the stomach for that."

Starliner's engineering problems and delays

Starliner's first flight carrying astronauts was actually targeted for a launch seven years ago. About two years later, in December 2019, Boeing was ready to send an empty Starliner up to the station for an uncrewed maiden voyage. The spaceship, however, never made it to the station, due to a software glitch that put it on the wrong orbit, and returned to Earth without completing its mission.

Suni Williams preparing for Starliner launch
Sunita "Suni" Williams, an astronaut and test pilot, will fly Starliner for the first time. Credit: NASA

After a seven-month investigation, NASA ordered 80 corrective actions for Boeing before it could fly Starliner again. Meanwhile, SpaceX was completing the crewed test that Boeing is slated to conduct no earlier than Monday. 

The troubles only continued. Boeing set out to conduct another unpiloted test flight and geared up for a launch in 2021 when engineers found more than a dozen corroded valves in the propulsion system. Replacing those parts pushed the redo to May 2022. 

Starliner's second spaceflight was free of those major problems, but the streak of hardware issues wasn't over. Just before Boeing was going to test the spacecraft with astronauts, more problems surfaced during reviews in 2023, causing even more delays, including an extra drop test for a new parachute system. The team also removed about a mile of the flammable tape covering internal wiring in the spacecraft and replaced it, Nappi said. 

NASA launching uncrewed Boeing Starliner in 2022
An uncrewed Starliner had a successful launch and flight in 2022. Credit: Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

NASA officials said that despite the previous issues that have slowed Starliner's progress, the spacecraft has been rigorously vetted for launch readiness. Associate administrator Jim Free emphasized that the lives of Williams and Wilmore, as well as the other astronauts at the station, were most important.

"We don't take that lightly at all," he said.

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