Boeing Starliner to Launch NASA Astronauts on First Flight: Live Updates

Four years ago, SpaceX flew its equivalent of this week’s Starliner mission — the first launch of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with two NASA astronauts aboard.

The agency celebrated loudly as the flight ended NASA’s nearly decade-long dependence on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to send astronauts to orbit. In part, that has made the debut of Starliner on Monday night almost like an afterthought, with Boeing seemingly light-years behind SpaceX.

Indeed, on Monday, before Starliner’s launch, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, posted on his social media site, X, “The world doesn’t need another capsule.”

In a separate posting, Mr. Musk sharply criticized Boeing. “Although Boeing got $4.2 billion to develop an astronaut capsule and SpaceX only got $2.6 billion, SpaceX finished 4 years sooner,” he wrote. “Too many non-technical managers at Boeing.”

A Boeing spokeswoman declined to comment.

While Mr. Musk might think Starliner is superfluous, NASA officials have often said it is important to have contingency options if something goes wrong.

“This will give us that additional capability because we always look for a backup,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said during a news conference on Friday.

Dana Weigel, program manager of the space station for NASA, gave the example of when a Soyuz docked at the space station suffered a coolant leak in 2022.

If the Soyuz were the only means of transportation, that could have led to a situation where the lives of the astronauts were genuinely at risk. But a SpaceX Crew Dragon was also docked there, providing a backup.

“If we had to bring the whole crew home on a SpaceX Dragon, we could have done that,” Ms. Weigel said.

For NASA, the more options it has, the better. If Crew Dragon or Starliner suffered a failure and were grounded, the other would still be available. That lessens the possibility that the United States might again have to rely on Russians and the whims of Vladimir Putin for launching people to space.

“The more dissimilar capabilities you have, the more robust you are for dealing with issues,” Ms. Weigel said.

During the Starliner delays, SpaceX has successfully launched nine Crew Dragon missions for NAS the test flight in May 2020 followed by eight operational missions that carried crews to the space station for six-month stays.

SpaceX has also launched four private astronaut missions using the same Crew Dragons. The first one, Inspiration4, was financed by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur. While that flight went only to orbit and not to the I.S.S., Axiom Space of Houston has since flown three private astronaut missions to the space station, with a fourth that might launch as soon as August.

Mr. Isaacman is also planning to return to space later this year with another Crew Dragon mission, called Polaris Dawn, which is aiming to include the first spacewalk during a commercial spaceflight.

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