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The Boeing Starliner spacecraft took off towards the International Space Station with its first astronauts

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft took off towards the International Space Station with its first astronauts

After years of successive postponements and two canceled launch attempts, Boeing must prove during this test flight that the Starliner is safe to begin regular operations, even though it is four years behind SpaceX, which is already transporting astronauts from NASA to the International Space Station. (ISS) since 2020.

Who is part of the crew?

A ULA Atlas V rocket, with a Starliner capsule on top, took off at 10:52 a.m. from Cape Canaveral in Florida. NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sonny Williams, two space veterans, make up the crew.

The two astronauts must spend a little over a week on the ISS, and then always return aboard the Starliner.

Butch Wilmore, 61, and Sonny Williams, 58, have both been to the International Space Station twice and have been training for this mission for several years. After take-off, they must temporarily switch to manual driving to test proper operation. Both test pilots, from the US Navy, were actively involved in the development of the Starliner, and this example was called the Calypso.

The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station about 24 hours after its launch on Thursday. It carries an unexpected cargo, added at the last minute: a new pump for the astronauts' urine-to-water recycling system on the International Space Station.

Multiple disappointments

Boeing, which has also been shaken by safety problems on its planes, is also betting its reputation on the mission. The Starliner's development was marred by multiple disappointments. After the failure of the first unmanned test flight in 2019, the empty vehicle was able to reach the International Space Station only in May 2022.

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Other problems were later discovered — related to the capsule's brakes during its reentry into the atmosphere, or even flammable tape that had to be removed from inside the vehicle — delaying its maiden flight with the crew. This is essential for Starliner to achieve the coveted NASA certification.

Only a few American ships have carried astronauts in the past. After the American space shuttles were closed in 2011, NASA astronauts were forced to travel aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. To put an end to this dependence, in 2014 the US space agency signed a contract with Boeing and SpaceX to develop new ships.