Long-Awaited Starliner Launch Breaks A Six-Decade Drought

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An Atlas rocket has launched with astronauts aboard for the first time since Gordon Cooper’s final Mercury flight in his Faith 7 capsule on May 15, 1963 (powered by an Atlas LV-3B 130-D). The Atlas V rocket that launched today (June 5), manufactured by United Launch Alliance and powered at liftoff by a Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine, carried Boeing’s Starliner crew ferry ship to orbit following multiple launch delays over the past several days. The spacecraft departed from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Pad 41 (a few miles from Cooper’s 1963 launch site) at 10:52 a.m. EDT and is considered a “shakedown” flight to the International Space Station.

On board are former Navy test pilots Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams, both now active-duty NASA astronauts. Between them, they have four space flights logged, including 500 days in orbit and 11 space walks. Their mission calls for monitoring automated controls during the initial launch, testing manual controls en route, then monitoring the automated 25-hour rendezvous and docking sequence with the International Space Station just past noon tomorrow (EDT).

Boeing’s Starliner is considered four years behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon, which has already carried 50 astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and civilians on 13 orbital flights since 2020, all but one to the space station. But Williams and Wilmore say the Starliner is safer and more capable than the competition, with multiple upgrades. Williams said, “I’m not going to say it’s been easy … We knew we would get here eventually. It’s a solid spacecraft. I don’t think I would really want to be in any other place right now.”

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, posted a congratulatory message to the Starliner team on his social media platform X. “Congratulations on a successful launch,” he wrote.

After docking and meeting with the astronauts and cosmonauts currently on board the space station, the Starliner crew is scheduled to begin its return journey to Earth on June 14. That date is subject to weather forecasts for the landing sites in western U.S. desert regions. Going forward, NASA is expected to certify the Starliner for annual routine rotation flights to the space station. Current plans call for alternating missions with the SpaceX Crew Dragon to deliver crews to the space station for six-month duty tours.

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

23 COMMENTS

  1. So our latest and greatest is a 1960’s rocket with a Russian motor and on the very first flight NASA states that it is safer than SpaceX which has 50 astronauts and 13 successful missions behind it. Don’t look at the four years behind schedule and billions over budget, that is just semantics. By the way did they check the door bolts?

  2. The 1960s Atlas rocket that launched the Mercury astronauts has as much in common with today’s Atlas V as does a 1964 Ford Mustang with today’s Mustang Mach-E.

    Other than the same name and same basic function, they have nothing in common with their originals.

    At least the Mustang has closer ties to the original as it’s still built by the same company.

    PS – And yes, I chose the example “Mustang Mach-E” over the “Mustang” coupe to further highlight just how far apart the Atlas and Atlas V are from each other.

  3. “But Williams and Wilmore say the Starliner is safer and more capable than the competition…” That would be an inappropriate, at best, statement by USG reps regarding competition between contracted services…did they actually say that or was editorial paraphrasing grossly overstating a “great to be here” go team type of comment?

  4. Except for testing the manual controls, their entire mission seems to consist of ‘monitoring’ one thing or another. If memory serves, and I think it does, that’s the same kind of thing that got the Mercury astronauts nicknamed “Spam in a can” by Chuck Yeager and others.

    • My thoughts exactly. I can not think of one accomplishment of manned space flight since the moon landing that has had a positive return on my coerced investment through confiscation of my money. And the moon landing itself did little more than return a few rocks. This country is $35T in debt, we’re essentially broke, and don’t have money to continue throwing into the dark hole of government-funded space travel.

      • Gosh, Kent. How do you survive without your cellphone? And how in the world did you post that knee-jerk reactionary comment into a world-wide forum without some sort of, I don’t know, “computing device” of some sort? If you think that all that post-Apollo11 “space research” money resulted in only “space flights”, and that your entire digital world sprang full-grown from the head of Bill Gates, you are woefully ignorant of the history of technology.

        The moon landing would have been a stunningly successful technology demonstrator, even if it had brought back nothing from the surface to study but the dust on some spacesuits. It was Magellan-esque in its historic import, the rocks were gravy, and every moon mission after that proved it was not a fluke.

        There are lots of other “government-funded” projects that could use the pittance you pay in taxes, sure. How do you feel about replacing our space program with cradle-to-grave universal health care, or guaranteed housing, or free college tuition, or nationwide high-speed internet? Whoops, scratch that last one; it owes its very existence to the space program.

        • “ pittance you pay in taxes”

          Federal income tax, State income tax, property tax, home heating tax, electricity tax, gas tax, ISP tax, phone tax, sales tax, payroll tax, licenses/fees/registration (a tax by any other name)…

          My “pittance” hovers around 45% of income. More when you count the inflation tax.

          Get rid of payroll deductions and have people write a check every April 14 for their entire tax burden for the year. That might open their eyes to the “pittance” they pay in taxes.

  5. To clarify because it matters, the Atlas 5 first stage is built in the US by United Launch Alliance and does indeed have one Russian RD-180 liquid fueled engine that was supplied before the Ukraine war. It also has capacity for up to 5 american built “strap on” solid rocket boosters with 290,000 lbs of thrust each, on this launch it had two.

    The second stage of the Atlas 5 is powered by one or two American built Aerojet liquid fueled engines. While behind schedule and over budget this is an important mission because having options in our space launch capability is good. SpaceX is doing amazing things but we need other companies competent in orbital launch and manned space flight.

    The comparison of this launch to one decades ago is completely irrelevant. The first rockets called Atlas were ICBMs designed to nuke Russia (there’s some serious historic irony for you) and they have absolutely nothing in common with the new rocket system called Atlas 5 except launching things into space, fortunately in this case not nuclear weapons. Also I highly question the quote that one of the Astronauts said that this was “safer” than the well proven SpaceX Falcon9 and Dragon.

    Congrats to NASA and Godspeed to the crew of the StarLiner!

    • He was, with a Redstone launch booster. Cooper flew the final Mercury mission as stated, boosted by an Atlas.

  6. Hubris! Surest way to get yourself and your passengers killed. He hasn’t even finished the mission which is 4 years behind schedule, billions over budget, and powered by a Russian motor. The optics of those comments are just plain stupid. Seems like a prerequisite to work for Boeing.

    I’m going to go waaaay out on a limb and and guess that those Russian motors aren’t going to be forth coming for future launches and Boeing will go over budget and suffer years of delays replacing them…unless they buy them from Space X

    • “He hasn’t even finished the mission which is 4 years behind schedule, billions over budget, and powered by a Russian motor.”

      Well, the Russian powered part is long over, and seems to have gone quite safely.

      “… Russian motors aren’t going to be forth coming for future launches and Boeing will go over budget and suffer years of delays replacing them…unless they buy them from Space X”

      More likely to be Blue Origin with the Blue BE-4 engines, currently slated for the ULA Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn booster. Yeah, still under development, but I have as much faith in Blue as I do in SpaceX. They’re slower, but I think Bezos is ultimately as driven as Musk is.

    • When the “assured access to space” was launched after the Challenger disaster, Lockheed chose to use Russian engines with American software. McDonnell Douglas decided to update the Delta 2 to the Delta 4. These became the two ULA vehicles when the companies merged to form ULA.

  7. I do note that Starliner launched with one small helium leak, and picked up two more on the way to space. Vibration breaks things!
    Meanwhile, SpaceX Starship completed all of its mission objectives, including soft water landings, ever after suffering damage (one engine out on the SuperHeavy booster, fin burn-through on the Ship upon re-entry.)

  8. I don’t recall a lot of competing rocket companies when Al, Gus and John were monitoring systems up there. We had NASA. And as a kid, I thought they were swell. But they sure haven’t inspired many of us in the last 40 years or so. So maybe we need way more competition. If Elon actually gets us to Mars, that will be one for the ages.

    • I’m in my 40’s and NASA has been an inspiration my whole life. I’m not saying competition is a bad thing (although I trust Elon about as far as I can throw him), but if you’re not inspired by the accomplishments of the ISS, Hubble, James Webb, etc. then I think you haven’t been paying attention.

  9. Too bad it is obsolete.
    There are only 5 more Atlas Boosters left.
    So 5 more flights of Starliner and the program will end.
    Great work Boeing.

  10. The moon trips will all be over after Communist China claims it as their own.

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