Home » Boeing’s New Spacecraft Launches To The ISS And Is Only Humanity’s 10th Human-Crewed Type Of Spacecraft

Boeing’s New Spacecraft Launches To The ISS And Is Only Humanity’s 10th Human-Crewed Type Of Spacecraft

Liftoff Strarliner Top
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After two scrubbed launch attempts capping off years of delays, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner lifted off today, and became the tenth type of spacecraft ever to take human beings into orbit. Is that right? Let’s count them off: the Soviets (later Russians) had the single-person Vostok, then the multi-crew Voskhod, then the Soyuz, which is still in use to this day. So that’s three. Then, in America, we had Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, which remains the only spacecraft to take people to the moon, then the re-usable Space Shuttles, and then, after a long gap, the SpaceX Dragon. So that’s five more, bringing us to eight. Then we have China’s spacecraft, a sort of larger, more evolved Soyuz-type spaceship called Shenzou. That’s nine, and that makes the Starliner number ten.

The Atlas V launch vehicle sent the Starliner into the sky about 12:15 ET today, with mission pilot Sunita “Suni” Williams and commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore inside, a two-astronaut crew seemingly the standard for NASA first flights of a new spacecraft since the first space shuttle Colombia launched with John Young (also the first person to smuggle a corned beef sandwich into orbit) and Robert Crippen, and then much later the first SpaceX Dragon 2 made its first flight with Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The recent past hasn’t been easy on Starliner and its plan to get into orbit and dock with the International Space Station. In May, a valve on the Atlas V launch vehicle’s Centaur upper stage scrubbed the launch, and later in the month it was scrubbed again due to a helium leak on the service module. Then there was an issue with the flight computers that delayed the launch yet again, but finally, on the third official try, Starliner made it off the pad and into space.

Here’s the NASA video of the launch:

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Tomorrow around 12:15 ET Starliner is expected to make an automated docking with the forward-facing docking port on the Harmony module of the ISS.

Visting Craft

The Starliner spacecraft consists of a crew capsule that is a bit bigger than the old Apollo capsule and the SpaceX dragon capsule, but smaller than the upcoming Orion spacecraft, which is designed for missions beyond Earth orbit, in contrast to Starliner, which is primarily a ferry from Earth to orbit and, more specifically, docking at the ISS. Starliner capsules are designed for up to 10 re-uses, though the service module is expendable.

Starliner Diagram

The Starliner, which is capable of seating up to seven astronauts or mixing crew and cargo – this current mission is taking about 760 pounds of cargo to the ISS, and will return 750 pounds back to Earth – is also interesting in the way it returns to Earth. Unlike previous American capsules (shuttles landed on runways like airplanes), which have always splashed down into the ocean, including the SpaceX Dragon, Starliner will land on solid ground, with retro-rockets and airbags cushioning the impact. This is how Soyuz capsules have always landed, and how the Chinese Shenzou capsules land, but it’s a first for an American capsule.

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Here’s video of the Starliner landing in New Mexico on its previous un-crewed test:

It took Boeing a long time to get here, but I’m happy to see yet another option for getting humans into orbit out there. This test mission will remain docked to the ISS for about a week, and the overall mission is expected to last ten days. The earliest return date is said to be June 14, but that could be extended.

Starliner has 390 cubic feet of habitable volume; that’s comparable to the Dragon 2’s 330 cubic feet, and a good bit more than the Apollo capsules, that had only 210 cubic feet. Starliner features wireless computer network connections inside, which may be a first for a space capsule, and yet somehow doesn’t seem to offer a toilet? I guess they’re wearing diapers on the way up? There must be some sort of system for urine at least, right? I’ll look into that for a follow-up article. It’s possible they’re just relying on the fecal bag system that was used on Apollo, and, from personal (if ersatz) experience, I can tell you is deeply unpleasant.

We’ll keep an eye on how the mission goes; here’s hoping it all goes great!

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Simon M
Simon M
19 days ago

It seems a bit harsh to only count Apollo as one type of human-carrying spacecraft. Let’s see some LEM love!

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
19 days ago

What about Blue Origin’s New Sheppard capsule? It has made it past the Karman Line with a crew of 4.

Simon M
Simon M
19 days ago

I’m guessing this list is only orbital? Otherwise the X-15 made it over the Karman line a couple of times.

Scorp Mcgorp
Scorp Mcgorp
19 days ago

I helped design several packages that are on the craft, comprising portions of the life support and thermal control systems. I’m incredibly happy to have been able to see work i put in years ago (we were a Boeing Subcontractor on those systems) finally make it into space on a real mission. those packages of course already went into LEO on the un-crewed test mission ( along with a neat patch and certificate that we all got and i have in a shadowbox on the wall), but to have real live humans aboard and have those systems be working well is certainly a feather in the cap

say what you will about Boeing and it’s struggles with safety and quality, but this flight marks the culmination of a lot of very hard and thankless work by an array of humans doing all kinds of jobs with a singular goal of furthering human expoloration and understanding of our universe, and I think that’s truly inspiring.

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
19 days ago
Reply to  Scorp Mcgorp

It must be a great feeling seeing something you worked on leave the earth successfully!

Scorp Mcgorp
Scorp Mcgorp
19 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Wyman

it is, though one of the systems in particular will ideally never ever be used, as it’s only designed to kick in if air quality in the cabin is compromised through fire/smoke or decompression. I’ll be happy if that never has to be tested.

the thermal control systems are more active on all flight stages, so those I’m happy to see are working very well, and the crew is able to do their jobs without issue. dissipating heat is an interesting thing to do in the vacuum of space. radiation is the primary method, as convection and conduction through a vacuum isn’t really a thing. sublimation is another method that’s common, though subject to all kinds of difficulties in space.

Camp Fire
Camp Fire
19 days ago

In an interesting quirk of timing, the first (fully) successful orbital flight of Starship happened while Starliner was flying its first passenger flight. A noteworthy coincidence given how rarely each class of ship has flown.

A historic week for space nerds!

Last edited 19 days ago by Camp Fire
RootWyrm
RootWyrm
19 days ago

As amazing as it is, it’s still a Boeing product. And Boeing? Let’s just say that safety is job none, doubly so when they think they can charge for it.

Did they make sure there weren’t any whistleblowers onboard or involved with it? That would be a safety concern.
Has anyone verified that the door bolts are actually installed?
Did NASA pay the extra $2.5M for the option to make the system confirm before venting atmosphere?

ESO
ESO
19 days ago
Reply to  RootWyrm

RootWyrm!!! Where have you been?

Fasterlivingmagazine
Fasterlivingmagazine
19 days ago

Scrolling through social media lately makes me sick at the sight of the amount of people today that don’t believe that we ever went to space, or that space even exists. Where did this even come from?

Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
19 days ago

Social media generation is just dumb. They get all of their “facts” through TikTok, et al. Someone posts a ridiculously false conspiracy video and these idiots believe it word for word like its Encyclopedia Britannica

Mike B
Mike B
19 days ago
Reply to  Nick Fortes

It’s EVERYONE, not just a certain generation. I would wager though that it’s OLDER folks who are more prone to this, they’re not aware of how the algorithms work or how much misinformation is purposely spread on social media.

Joshua Christian
Joshua Christian
17 days ago
Reply to  Mike B

As someone from Gen Z, I’m sad to report that while we used to be far more immune to this sort of misinformation, its begun to plague us as well. The ‘Helen Keller Conspiracy’ is a good example. A concerning number us seem to think she was a fraud.

Last edited 17 days ago by Joshua Christian
Mike B
Mike B
15 days ago

I’m going to consider it a point of pride that I have not heard of this one.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
19 days ago

I’m so glad the fascination with space pooping is still a thing. Send me out there! I still want to poop in space!

I know there’s, uh, waste management systems for spacewalks and such. I wonder if that’s what they have onboard here, or if they just hold it for the trip up and drop their bombs in the ISS?

JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
17 days ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

The recording from Apollo 10 and the floating turd is one of the best things I have ever heard.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
19 days ago

So you’re saying that Butch and Sun(i)dance ride again?

Stoney got got (potentially)
Stoney got got (potentially)
19 days ago

If you all are interested in space stuff, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Becky on youtube. Despite the informal name, she’s a real deal astrophysicist, and breaks down super complicated stuff into extremely digestible bits. In short, she is awesome.

Here is one of her latest about how to measure the speed a black hole spins at, and why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49kfebgbFpA

Chronometric
Chronometric
19 days ago

Oh and did she mention that she wrote a book?

Stoney got got (potentially)
Stoney got got (potentially)
19 days ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Haha! Everyone’s gotta eat 🙂

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
19 days ago

When I was working at Aerojet on the Titan IV rocket motor, we had one come through that was flagged as “man rated” meaning that it was intended for a launch with a human aboard. Did a Titan IV ever take a person to space? It was interesting to watch the components come through the sheet metal and weld shop and the extra attention those parts received.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
19 days ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

I don’t think Titan IV ever did, but of course the Titan II launched the Gemini capsules – could the engine in question have been originally meant for the Gemini program? The core stage of the Titan IV was still powered by a pair of LR87s, same as the Titan II…

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
19 days ago

And Is Only Humanity’s 10th Human-Crewed Type Of Spacecraft

That we know of…

10001010
10001010
19 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

What about that Reliant Robin that Top Gear launched, does that count?

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
19 days ago
Reply to  10001010

Nobody was on board so sadly it doesn’t count.

10001010
10001010
19 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Nobody was on board…that we know of 😉

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
19 days ago

I saw a mockup of Starliner at Kennedy Space Center a few years ago. It was ginormous compared to the Gemini mockup on display, which I, ahem, didn’t even fit into.

Vanillasludge
Vanillasludge
19 days ago

We have finally regained the ability to launch people into space without the assistance of a despot or asshole…or asshole despot.

Last edited 19 days ago by Vanillasludge
Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
19 days ago
Reply to  Vanillasludge

I’m sure Boeing has a few of those types working there too.

Vanillasludge
Vanillasludge
19 days ago

Working there, not owning the company or running the country.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
19 days ago
Reply to  Vanillasludge

Give it time. It’s an election year.

Rob Schneider
Rob Schneider
19 days ago

In Boeing’s case, it seams that would be the MBAs. They’d rather make more money than ensure people’s lives.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
19 days ago
Reply to  Rob Schneider

I was about to say…none of Boeing’s execs are actively posting fascist word vomit onto Twitter, but they SURE seem to be problematic about whistleblowers and quality control. Definitely not a perfect little angel of a company.

Last edited 19 days ago by Stef Schrader
Wezel Boy
Wezel Boy
19 days ago
Reply to  Vanillasludge

Hate to burst your bubble, but the first stage Atlas V booster used in this flight was powered by a Russian RD-180 engine.

Vanillasludge
Vanillasludge
19 days ago
Reply to  Wezel Boy

Oh well…we’re f&$ked

Voeltzwagen
Voeltzwagen
19 days ago

As an armchair (maybe even poser) space-nerd, I truly appreciate seeing Torch cover these topics. That’s why I pay with money I don’t have to support this place.

10001010
10001010
19 days ago
Reply to  Voeltzwagen

Same

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
19 days ago

This is great, thanks Torch! I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that watching the launch today brought a little bit of a tear to my eye.

If cars serve as avatars of personal freedom for many of us here, spacecraft seem to me to represent that idea a thousand-fold, and for us as a species as a whole.

It never gets old – as a kid, I watched the shuttle take off/land all the time, and even witnessed the Challenger disaster live, as many of us who were around then did. But it still moves me to see the result of human ingenuity and really hard work come together to produce something powerful enough to leave our planet and well-designed enough to make it back.

Sure, the reality is frequently messy (cars or rockets), and I’m aware of the costs, but the dream they embody seems so wonderfully American, if not fundamentally human. It can really be said that it’s a contender for the best part of us.

Last edited 19 days ago by Jack Trade
MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
19 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I remember sitting in a classroom watching the Challenger launch. 2nd grade maybe? I’ll never forget the look on my teacher’s face when it exploded.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
19 days ago

I can’t help but wonder if all the advances in computer technology, software, and materials contributed to the delays of the Starliner.

If we were back in the Apollo era, lacking the ultra microscopic diagnostics of today, they probably would’ve pushed the go button on this thing two weeks ago. Might’ve ended in tragedy, but them’s the breaks.

I’m not saying NASA didn’t do it’s very best to game plan and offset risk back then, just that they didn’t have the tools to do what we can now. In some respects, I think we’re more risk averse and less courageous than before because of it, though that’s a relative thing.

In the stone ages, back when I was an aviation program manager, we had a project schedule event labeled STE. This stood for “shoot the engineers” because at some point you had to stop fiddling with development, build the thing and light the fuse. I miss those days.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
19 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Who knows? 47% of NASA’s in-flight fatalities have occurred in the 21st century (and 93% post-Apollo)

Rob Schneider
Rob Schneider
19 days ago

The Soviets also had the Buran, their “clone” of the US STS shuttle.

It made one unmanned flight to orbit before the USSR collapsed, but it was designed for human occupation – it just never had the opportunity to take cosmonauts to orbit.

I can see why you didn’t include it on your list of 10, though.

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