Boeing Starliner lifts off flying NASA astronauts for first time

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are testing Boeing’s new Starliner spacecraft to certify it for future astronaut missions to the International Space Station. The Starliner spacecraft, named Calypso, is scheduled to dock at the ISS on Wednesday.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft blasted off from Florida on Wednesday afternoon, sending two veteran astronauts on a test flight of NASA’s newest ride to orbit.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore began the Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Starliner by launching on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral at 10:52 a.m. ET.

Wednesday's historic flight marked the sixth new orbital spacecraft and the first new vehicle with a woman as part of the test flight crew.  

About 13 minutes into their flight, the astronauts reached orbit for the fourth time in their careers. Both former U.S. Navy test pilots and veteran astronauts, they have a combined nearly 500 hours in space. 

Williams said she had the privilege of naming "this little tough bird" Calypso, after explorer Jacques Cousteau’s ship. 

"I thought it was appropriate that this spacecraft is going to take a lot of people up to the space station for exploration," she said before launch. 

In the minutes before liftoff, Wilmore thanked the Boeing, ULA and NASA teams for ensuring their safe spaceflight.

"Let’s put some fire to this rocket and push it to the heavens," he said before blasting off. 

Liftoff culminated 10 years of development and testing for Boeing and NASA teams working on Starliner. In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to fly astronauts to the ISS with commercial spacecraft.

The first launch attempt on May 6 ended in a scrub due to a faulty oxygen valve on the rocket, but a problem with a helium leak on the spacecraft ultimately delayed the flight into June.

A second launch attempt also ended in a scrub after a computer issue on the launchpad. ULA was able to replace the problem part over the weekend, allowing the launch to happen on Wednesday. 

After the crew was in orbit, NASA leadership celebrated the historic launch, saying it was one worth waiting for. 

"This is a special moment, it’s another one of those great markers in history," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. "What NASA does is hard, spaceflight is hard but it’s worth doing."

Responding to the criticisms after years of delays with Starliner, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, Ken Bowersox, cautioned people against judging too early in a program's history.

"You really don't know how great a program is until after it's finished," said Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut.

Different ride, same space destination

There were subtle differences between Boeing’s first human spaceflight and the astronauts who launched with SpaceX over the past four years. 

Crews helped Wilmore and Williams put on their "Boeing Blue" flight suits. SpaceX and Boeing both designed custom suits for each company's spacecraft. 

The astronauts rode out to the launchpad in the new Astrovan II. A ride to the launchpad in an Airstream van is a tradition that dates back to the first human spaceflights.

Wilmore told reporters that they planned to watch some of "Top Gun Maverick" on their way to the rocket. Both astronauts are retired Navy captains and test pilots. 

"It's got cushioned seats, and, of course, it's got a big video screen in the back. And as you would expect, two Navy pilots. You know what movie we put on," Wilmore said. "They edited out and put only in the flying scenes and the dramatic scenes."

"Butch and Suni" also launched from a different launchpad than the SpaceX Crew Dragon lifts off from. The Atlas V launches from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station side of Florida’s spaceport, where the SpaceX Falcon 9 launches humans from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A.

The Atlas V rocket roared to life, sending the Starliner and its crew into space, marking the first human spaceflight for both the spacecraft and the rocket. Despite 100 launches for ULA’s workhorse rocket, the first human spaceflight comes toward the end of its successful career as the company transitions to its new Vulcan rocket. 

The crew will test drive the Starliner in manual mode and perform some checkouts before getting some sleep while in orbit.

"Butch and Suni" are scheduled to dock at the International Space Station at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday where the five astronauts and two cosmonauts will be waiting to greet them.

A successful test flight will culminate about a week later when Starliner returns to Earth, landing in the Southwest desert and safely bringing the astronauts home.

Starliner's first astronaut launch years in the making

Boeing's CFT comes four years after SpaceX first launched two NASA astronauts to the space station, ending U.S. reliance on Russia for transport to the orbiting laboratory after the space shuttle program ended.  SpaceX is preparing for its ninth flight with a NASA crew this summer.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and others in the spaceflight industry took to social media to congratulate Boeing and ULA on the milestone launch.

Boeing's journey to develop and certify the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft has faced delays over the past decade since NASA selected two companies to develop spacecraft to fly astronauts to and from the space station. 

The company took two tries to complete the orbital flight test when the first attempt to launch a crewless Starliner in 2019 failed to reach the ISS due to a computer timing error. 

A 2022 orbital flight test was successful, but Boeing engineers found issues with the spacecraft after examining data from the flight, further delaying the Crew Flight Test with astronauts.  

"We don't see it as a competition," Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program manager Mark Nappi said about the comparisons between the two companies. "I sit on my front porch and watch every SpaceX mission and root for them. This is something that's great for the entire country."