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Boeing launches its Starliner spacecraft with two astronauts on board tonight

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In just a few hours, a new spacecraft built by Boeing is set to carry two astronauts to the International Space Station. It's called the Starliner. Just like Boeing's airplanes recently, it's been beset by technical problems and safety concerns. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is here to discuss it. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What does this new spaceship look like?

BRUMFIEL: OK, so it's a capsule. It looks a lot like a gumdrop, actually. And it's a throwback to the earlier days of space flight, like the Apollo program. You know, the space shuttle looked like a plane, but after it retired, NASA and commercial companies went back to using capsules 'cause they're safer. But this one is upgraded from those 1960s aerospace crafts.

SHAPIRO: I should hope so.

BRUMFIEL: They've got advanced computers, a bit more space - yeah - and a docking port so it can go to the International Space Station.

SHAPIRO: OK, so I mentioned that Boeing has had some problems with the Starliner's development. What's gone wrong?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. A decade ago, NASA selected two companies to build capsules to fly crew to the space station. One was Boeing, and the other one was Elon Musk's company SpaceX. Now, NASA paid Boeing billions of dollars more than SpaceX, but SpaceX is already flying the astronauts. So it's not really that money was the issue. It just seems like Starliner had a lot of problems.

Starting with its first uncrewed flight test in 2019, there were software glitches so bad that it couldn't even reach the same orbit as the station. Its second flight test was delayed by almost a year because of stuck valves. When it finally happened, there were issues with the thrusters. Then this latest flight test was delayed again due to problems with the parachutes and with potentially flammable tape that had been used throughout the spacecraft...

SHAPIRO: Oof.

BRUMFIEL: ...To secure wires and other things. Now, despite all this, astronaut Suni Williams said last week she was confident the spacecraft is good to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNI WILLIAMS: We've got it to a point - all of us, big team - got it to a point that we feel very safe and comfortable with how the spacecraft flies.

BRUMFIEL: And her fellow astronaut, Butch Wilmore, pointed out that, if at any point it needed to, the capsule could shoot off the top of the rocket and return safely, but they don't expect to need that.

SHAPIRO: I hope not. I mean, this is going to remind a lot of people of the problems that Boeing has had with its planes recently. Is this all related?

BRUMFIEL: Well, you know, Boeing's a huge company. Space is a whole separate division from aviation. So we need to be cautious. But one analyst I spoke to, Laura Forczyk of Astralytical, thinks that the two are related.

LAURA FORCZYK: I believe that this is a continuation of other problems we've seen with Boeing. It just seems to be that the company's development and quality control processes have declined.

BRUMFIEL: But I think it's important to say that neither Forcyzk or anyone else expects big problems tonight. NASA has been watching this development process throughout, and it wouldn't put astronauts on the Starliner if they didn't think it was safe.

SHAPIRO: All right, setting aside the safety concerns, what's the actual mission? What happens after the launch?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, well, they'll spend about a day flying through space, and then they're going to rendezvous with the space station. Wilmore and Williams will spend about a week aboard the station, running tests on the Starliner. And then they'll return to Earth, landing somewhere in the Western U.S. There's a number of possible sites.

But I think the bigger question is what will become of the Starliner. You know, NASA will use it for up to six launches to the space station, but it's not really clear what its future is beyond that. It's already cost Boeing well over a billion dollars in losses to develop. And it's sort of not clear who, if anyone, will pay for those future flights after NASA is done.

SHAPIRO: NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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