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Boeing's Starliner launches into space after years of delay

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A long-delayed space launch has finally taken off this morning. Boeing built the spacecraft. It's called the Starliner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three, two, one, ignition and lift-off of Starliner and Atlas V, carrying two American heroes.

MARTIN: On board are NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. They are headed to the International Space Station. Today's launch came after years of delays. Joining us to talk about this milestone is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, welcome.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell me about these delays. Why did it take so long for today's launch to happen?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, Starliner's had problems right from the start. Way back in 2019, before the pandemic, it had its first uncrewed test flight. And an improperly set clock aboard the spacecraft caused its engines to fire too early, so it couldn't reach the proper orbit. It never made it to the space station, where it was supposed to go, and it had to come home early.

It's second test flight also had problems. They found issues with the parachutes, which are obviously pretty important for landing. They also found that engineers had used potentially flammable tape onboard the spacecraft to wrap up all the wires. They had to replace all that tape. There are a lot of wires on a spaceship, so that took a long time.

Now they've been trying for weeks, and they've called off the launch twice before this, first for stuck valve, then for a computer glitch. Finally, finally, today, it all came together. It took off with everything except the astronauts' suitcases.

MARTIN: OK, wait a minute. What about the suitcases?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. This is like the final summer travel sort of injustice. Basically, the space station's urine recycling system broke last week. They had to put in a spare pump. But, you know, you'd rather have a toilet, I suppose, than space in your suitcases.

MARTIN: OK, but I am going to worry about how they're going to change their clothes, but I'll just keep that thought. So this is Starliner's first flight with people inside. Can you just tell us a little bit more about the spacecraft?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. It's a gumdrop-shaped capsule about the size of a midsized SUV on the inside. It's a throwback to what you might have seen in the Apollo era, but obviously updated. This is one of two capsules NASA's developed with private companies to go to the space station. The other one is SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Dragon actually had its first test flight in 2020 and now regularly flies to the station, and it also costs less than Starliner to develop.

MARTIN: Geoff, I do think it's fair to ask, though, given all the problems that Boeing has had with its airplanes lately, is NASA sure this is safe?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, Boeing is an enormous company. The space division is completely separate from the aviation division, and spacecraft are obviously held to a different standard. Hundreds of Boeing and NASA engineers have been looking over this thing for years to make sure it works, and it appeared to today. That being said, at least one analyst I spoke to said there is a connection. You know Boeing's quality control for Starliner is clearly not as good as it should be, similar to what's happened in the aviation division, but it's caused delays, not necessarily, you know, doors to fall off the spaceship or anything like that.

MARTIN: So what happens now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the astronauts are going to spend about a day flying to the station. Most of that'll be on autopilot, but they'll also switch it off autopilot and try driving it around a little bit, you know, piloting it manually just to make sure it works. Once they've docked to station, they'll stay there for about a week, running various tests on the Starliner. And then they're going to come back and land somewhere in the Western United States using those parachutes, which, hopefully, all the kinks are worked out, and they come down, no problem.

MARTIN: And then they can change their clothes.

BRUMFIEL: They do have spare clothes on board.

MARTIN: OK. That is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thank you.

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.

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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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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