Boeing’s overpriced $1.5 billion Starliner crew capsule is about to take its first flight with humans on board. Boeing was selected 10 years ago along with SpaceX to develop a spacecraft that could carry astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS), thereby allowing NASA to end its dependence on Russia for crewed flights. The companies were each awarded a fixed-price contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: $4.2 billion to Boeing for its CST-100 (Starliner) and $2.6 billion for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Their original deadline of 2017 proved too ambitious. SpaceX — and about a dozen since — while Boeing struggles to get its Starliner capsule off the ground. But as soon as May 6, he will finally have a manned flight under his belt.

The Starliner is now at Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, attached to the ULA Atlas V rocket that will send it on its way to the ISS. Liftoff is scheduled for 10:34 PM ET on Monday, May 6. The capsule will carry two NASA astronauts: Butch Willmore, the mission commander, and Suni Williams, who will serve as the pilot.

Boeing Starliner in space during unmanned flight


Not only is this the Starliner’s first manned flight, but this test is only its third flight to date. The spacecraft (without anyone aboard) successfully demonstrated its ability to reach, dock and undock from the ISS in the spring of 2022 when it conducted its second orbital flight test. On its previous attempt in 2019, the Starliner failed to reach the ISS thanks to a software problem that caused it to burn too much fuel (one of the few problems Boeing missed after choosing then).

It has also had many other problems in the years since Boeing landed the contract with NASA, which has caused the company to fall far behind SpaceX. There was a toxic fuel leak during a test in 2018. Corrosion then caused valves in the propulsion system to stick, thwarting Boeing’s plans for a 2021 launch. reported earlier this year. Problems with the spacecraft’s parachute deployment system last summer and the team had to remove about a mile of flammable tape.

Boeing also had its share of problems outside of the Starliner during this time, facing increased scrutiny in the — particularly the 737 Max line — after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, in addition to other less serious incidents. Most recently, in January, a panel blew off a 737 Max 9 mid-flight, forcing it to make an emergency landing.

The May 6 flight marks an important step toward certifying the Starliner as a crew transportation system that NASA can actually include in its rotation for trips to the ISS. That would give the space agency the cuts it’s looking for; since the Crew Dragon and Starliner are operational, he’ll always have a backup option in case something happens to either of them. Both NASA and Boeing are adamant that the capsule has gone through a thorough review process and is ready to support the astronauts. NASA concluded its Starliner crew test readiness review on April 25.

“The first crewed flight of a new spacecraft is an absolutely momentous moment,” NASA Associate Administrator Jim Freeh said during a briefing on the completion of the review. “The lives of our crew members Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore are at risk – we do not take this lightly at all.” The latest review is “the culmination of a season of detailed review that really thoroughly determined that we are indeed ready for this flight.” said NASA’s chief flight officer, Emily Nelson.

NASA astronauts Sunny Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore (right) at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in FloridaNASA astronauts Sunny Williams (left) and Butch Wilmore (right) at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida

NASA/Frank Michaud

The Starliner is expected to take about 24 hours to reach the ISS after liftoff, and since this is a test flight, the crew on board will have a long to-do list of system and equipment checks to complete in each phase of the journey . While the Starliner can operate autonomously, the crew will test its manual controls and make sure it’s in good shape for manual abort scenarios. After the Starliner docks at the space station, the astronauts will spend about a week there working with the current crew, Expedition 71.

Then they’ll undock from the orbiting lab and head home — and put the Starliner through the re-entry and landing test. Several potential landing sites in the southwestern United States were selected, including the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Wilmore and Williams have been training for the Starliner’s first flight for years. “They know the vehicle inside and out and have been part of the test environment that developed Starliner’s capabilities,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. All participants in last Thursday’s briefing acknowledged that they may encounter some unexpected challenges and that there is much to be learned from this first manned flight. “It’s a good reminder to all of us that the team has been training, running simulations, running models, but there’s nothing like flying in the space environment,” Free said.

NASA and Boeing officials also expressed confidence that the spacecraft itself and the teams managing its journey are well prepared for the job. The echoed those sentiments upon his arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t done,” Wilmore said in response to questions from the press. “We are ready, the spacecraft is ready and the teams are ready.”

If for some reason the Starliner is unable to launch on the 6th, it will have back-up options on the 7th, 10th and 11th of May. After the crew’s flight test is complete and the astronauts return home, NASA will begin certifying the spacecraft for future missions bringing crews to and from the ISS. The current target is 2025 for the Starliner to begin operations.

“I don’t want to get too far ahead because we still have to complete a successful mission,” Free said before the Starliner’s launch, “but when we do and when we certify the Starliner, the United States will have two unique human space shuttles that provide critical backups for access to the ISS.