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Boeing's Starliner capsule finally launches, but runs into more trouble with helium leaks

Why Boeing's Starliner launch took so long
Why Boeing's Starliner took so long to successfully launch 03:33

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasted off Wednesday and safely boosted Boeing's long-delayed Starliner crew ferry ship into space for its first piloted test flight. But flight controllers had to step in late in the day to troubleshoot additional, unexpected helium leaks in the ship's propulsion system.

The Starliner was launched with a small-but-persistent helium leak in a specific "manifold" — that is lines routing pressurized gas to valves that operate one specific thruster. The launch was delayed several weeks for troubleshooting, but managers concluded the spacecraft could be safely flown as is.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket roars away from its Cape Canaveral launch pad, boosting Boeing's Starliner crew capsule into space for its first piloted test flight. Running years behind schedule because of technical problems, the rocket and spacecraft appeared to perform flawlessly during the climb to orbit. NASA

Late in the day Wednesday, flight controllers detected signs of two more helium leaks in different parts of the ship's plumbing and carried out steps to isolate the affected lines. That stopped the leakage, but disabled six of 28 reaction control system jets in four propulsion modules mounted on the Starliner's service module.

Mission managers said before launch that backup plans had been developed in case the original leak dramatically worsened, and NASA commentators stressed that Starliner commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore and co-pilot Sunita Williams were in no danger, and that plans were being developed to manage the leaks as the mission continues.

But the troubleshooting put a damper on the elation that followed a picture-perfect launch. The crew's workhorse Atlas 5 rocket roared to life at 10:52 p.m. EDT, followed an instant later by ignition of two strap-on solid fuel boosters, to kick off a planned eight-day test flight.

Generating a combined 1.6 million pounds of thrust, the 197-foot Atlas 5 majestically climbed skyward from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, arcing away to the northeast on a trajectory matching the orbital path of the space station - a requirement for rendezvous missions.

"We all know that when the going gets tough, and it often does, the tough get going," Wilmore radioed controllers from the Starliner's cockpit before launch. "And you have. And Suni and I are honored to share this dream of spaceflight with each and every one of you. So with that, let's get going! Let's put some fire in this rocket and push it toward the heavens!"

He got his wish.

The Atlas 5 dropped the Starliner off with a velocity just shy of what's required to reach orbit, a precaution to make sure the crew ship would re-enter and land safely even if a major problem knocked out its own propulsion system. But there were no problems, and a thruster firing 31 minutes after liftoff completed the ascent phase of the mission, putting the ship in the planned orbit.

The astronauts then spent the afternoon testing the Starliner's manual controls and overall operation before taking a moment to congratulate Boeing, United Launch Alliance and NASA for a problem-free climb to space. Wilmore could barely contain his enthusiasm.

Cape Canaveral and Florida's "Space Coast" drop away below the Atlas 5 as the rocket accelerated away on a northeasterly trajectory, setting off after the International Space Station. NASA

"It is just an amazing, amazing spacecraft," he said of the Starliner. "Boeing's done a magnificent job. And thus far, like I said, things have just gone swimmingly, it's gone fabulously, put it like that. And so kudos to everybody. ULA? Love ya. Boeing? Love ya...It's been wonderful."

But shortly before the crew called it a day and prepared for sleep, the helium issue cropped up. Flight controllers promised Wilmore a detailed update after crew wakeup Thursday. Presumably, the helium leakage can be managed, permitting rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station just after noon.

The long-awaited flight marked the first launch of an Atlas 5 with astronauts aboard and the first for the Atlas family of rockets since astronaut Gordon Cooper took off just a few miles away on the Mercury program's final flight 61 years ago.

It also marks the first piloted flight of the Starliner, Boeing's answer to SpaceX's Crew Dragon, an already operational, less expensive spacecraft that has carried 50 astronauts, cosmonauts and civilians into orbit in 13 flights, 12 of them to the space station, since an initial piloted test flight in May 2020.

Despite a larger NASA contract, Boeing's Starliner is four years behind SpaceX getting astronauts to space. But Wilmore and Williams say the spacecraft is now safer and more capable thanks to numerous upgrades and fixes.

"I'm not going to say it's been easy. It's a little bit of (an) emotional roller coaster," Williams said before the crew's first launch attempt. But, she added, "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."

NASA chief astronaut Joe Acaba, right, and Starliner commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore arm wrestle in the crew suit-up room at the Kennedy Space Center while Starliner co-pilot Sunita Williams looks on, laughing. NASA

While Wilmore and Williams are closing in on the space station Thursday, SpaceX plans to launch its gargantuan Super Heavy-Starship rocket on its fourth test flight from the company's Boca Chica, Texas, "Starbase" facility.

The booster will attempt a controlled splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after liftoff while the Starship upper stage continues into space, looping halfway around the planet before re-entry and splashdown in the Indian Ocean.

In three previous flights, both stages were destroyed in flight, but performance dramatically improved with each launch as upgrades and fixes were implemented, and SpaceX expects more of the same with the fourth test flight.

The Super Heavy has nothing to do with Boeing's Starliner or the space station, but NASA will be paying close attention because the agency plans to use a variant of the Starship to carry astronauts down to the moon's surface in its Artemis program. Perfecting the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage are crucial to those plans.

Wilmore and Williams plan to dock at the space station and be welcomed aboard by cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and Alexander Grebenkin, along with NASA's Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, Jeanette Epps and Tracy Dyson.

Kononenko logged his 1,000th day in space across five flights Tuesday, underscoring his title as the world's most experienced spaceman, 220 days beyond the previous mark of 879 days set by cosmonaut Gennady Padalka in 2015.

The Starliner is tentatively scheduled to undock and return to Earth on June 14, but the flight could be extended depending on the weather at desert landing sites in the western United States.

The Starliner capsule and its white service module during pre-launch processing at Boeing manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center William Harwood/CBS News

NASA funded development of Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner to end the agency's sole post-shuttle reliance on Russian Soyuz for flights to the space station. Two spacecraft from different vendors were ordered to ensure the agency would be able to launch crews to the outpost even if one company's ferry ship was grounded for any reason.

Boeing initially planned to launch the Starliner on its first piloted flight in 2020, but the spacecraft encountered multiple problems during an initial unpiloted launch in December 2019. The company fixed those issues and opted to launch a second uncrewed flight at its own expense but then ran into problems with corroded propulsion system valves.

A second, successful uncrewed test flight was finally launched in May 2022. But after the spacecraft returned to Earth, engineers discovered protective tape wrapped around electrical lines inside the ship could pose a fire risk. Then they found possible problems with parachute harness connectors. When all was said and done, the first piloted flight was pushed into 2023.

Wilmore and Williams first strapped in for launch on May 6 only to be grounded by trouble with a pressure-relief valve in the Atlas 5's Centaur upper stage.

A more vexing problem then cropped up: a small-but-persistent helium leak in the Starliner's propulsion system that affected one of 24 low-power maneuvering thrusters in the capsule's service module. Mission managers ultimately decided to launch the spacecraft as is, concluding the leak did not pose any credible safety risk.

Launch was rescheduled for June 1, but the crew's second countdown stopped at the T-minus three-minute and 50-second mark when one of ULA's ground launch sequencer computers, one of three networked systems controlling the final moments of the countdown, failed to run in synch with its counterparts.

The problem was traced to a faulty power supply. Work to install and test replacement hardware delayed the Starliner's third launch attempt to Wednesday.

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