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After some setbacks, Boeing prepares for Starliner's first crewed launch into space

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Boeing is hoping it has better success in space than it's lately had inside the atmosphere.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The company is launching two NASA astronauts tonight from Florida's Cape Canaveral on a mission to the International Space Station. This is the first time Boeing's Starliner capsule will carry people, and this comes after years of delays.

INSKEEP: This is probably a bad time for a joke about missing bolts, so we'll just cover the story here. Central Florida Public Media's Brendan Byrne hosts the space exploration podcast and radio show "Are We There Yet?" Brendan, are we there yet (laughter)?

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Almost, Steve, few more hours (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK. How big a deal is this launch?

BYRNE: This is a really big deal, Steve. This launch is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. So after the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA needed a way to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS. They gave development deals to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014. But they want to have two capsules operating. SpaceX is sending astronauts now. Boeing is going to certify this capsule for future missions. So here's Starliner pilot and NASA astronaut Suni Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNI WILLIAMS: We're thinking about this for not only our flight, but for the flight of Starliner, you know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You know, everybody who's going to come behind us and fly this spacecraft, we want to make it as best as possible.

BYRNE: And that's because they're going to be alternating these flights between Boeing and SpaceX moving forward.

INSKEEP: Are Boeing and SpaceX directly competing here for space business then?

BYRNE: Not in this particular instance, Steve. NASA really wants to have redundant ability to get people up to the station. So about every six months, they'll switch off between two.

INSKEEP: OK. How is this working here? SpaceX has flown how many missions so far, and then there's the other coming from Boeing?

BYRNE: That's right. SpaceX has flown nine missions so far for NASA and another four private flights before Boeing has even sent a single person up. And this has been delayed because Starliner's first uncrewed test flight in 2019 failed to reach the space station. That was a huge setback for the program. Software was improperly written. No one caught it before the launch. They re-flew the mission in 2022. It was mostly deemed a success.

But there were some issues with the propellant valves that helped control the spacecraft. And the following year, in 2023, more worrying issues popped up in Starliner. They found the lines that held the parachutes weren't strong enough, and the tape used to wrap hundreds of feet of wire in the capsule were flammable.

INSKEEP: Wow.

BYRNE: So they worked to fix the issue. NASA said that's what these test flights are all about. Found those issues and fixed them, and now they're ready to launch.

INSKEEP: OK, so NASA is confident here. But there would be reason for people following the news to worry here, I think.

BYRNE: Yeah, it can be hard for people to separate the image of Boeing's safety issues with its planes and this space mission. Boeing says its focus on this project has always been about astronaut safety - that's its No. 1 priority. But as we know, Boeing has been in the spotlight recently for continued production and quality control problems with its 737 Max jets. Boeing's Mark Nappo was asked about that recently. Does Boeing see this as a must-win for its image? Well, here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK NAPPI: I don't think of it in terms of what's important for Boeing as much as I think of it as in terms of, what's important for this program? What's important to follow through with the commitments that we made to our customer?

BYRNE: And by customer he means NASA. That commitment includes a successful test flight with these two astronauts, who are scheduled to spend about a week at the station before returning to Earth in their Starliner capsule.

INSKEEP: Central Florida Public Media's Brendan Byrne. Thanks so much.

BYRNE: You got it, Steve. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Brendan Bryrne