A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the Boeing Starliner crew capsule blasts off on a second test flight to the International Space Station from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida , Thursday, May 19, 2022.

AP Photo/John Raoux

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Boeing’s crew capsule ascended into orbit Thursday on a repeat test flight without astronauts, after years on the ground with flaws that could have doomed the spacecraft.

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Only a test dummy was on board. If the capsule reaches the International Space Station on Friday and all goes well, two or three NASA test pilots could strap in by the end of this year or early next year for the first flight. in company crew.

It’s Boeing’s third shot at the high-stakes flight demonstration.

At least this time, Starliner made it to the correct orbit, quickly giving chase to the space station despite a pair of boosters failing. But the all-important rendezvous and docking loomed.

“It’s another big day for us,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and director of the commercial crew program at Boeing. “So we might have a few sleepless nights left ahead of us to complete the rest of the mission, but today feels really good.”

Starliner’s first test flight in 2019 was hit with software errors so severe that the capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and had to skip the space station. The spacecraft was nearly destroyed as ground controllers quickly aborted the mission.

After dozens of security fixes, Boeing returned a different capsule to the launch pad last summer. Corroded valves interrupted the countdown, prompting another round of repairs.

The endless test flight program cost Boeing about $600 million.

“We’re not going to fly (crews) unless we feel like we’ve reduced the risk,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of space operations.

Boeing is looking to redeem itself as it tries to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other contracted taxi service. Elon Musk’s company has been ferrying astronauts to and from the space station for two years and delivering cargo for an entire decade.

Eager to reduce its high-cost reliance on Russia for crew transport, NASA contracted Boeing and SpaceX to send astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ended in 2011. C That’s why it’s so important for Boeing’s Starliner to succeed, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. .

“In that case, we still want to have a backup,” Nelson told The Associated Press hours before takeoff.

Different in appearance but similar in function to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Boeing’s fully automated capsule will attempt to dock with the space station on its own. Station astronauts will be ready to fly the capsule by remote control, if necessary.

The capsule still has 10 good thrusters for major movements, including exiting orbit at the end of the flight, officials said. Both failures actually fired briefly before fading out prematurely one after the other; a backup was initiated to place the spacecraft in the correct orbit.

“We’re doing this one step at a time, and now we have to put this spacecraft through its paces and learn some things,” Lueders told reporters after liftoff.

Starliner will spend about five days on the space station before aiming for a landing in the New Mexico desert next Wednesday.

NASA has not yet finalized which astronauts will be part of Starliner’s first crew. The program is so late that the first three have withdrawn. Leading contenders gathered at Cape Canaveral for the evening launch of Starliner atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

“We’re excited because the next one is us,” said astronaut Butch Wilmore.

Along with Rosie the Rocketeer — a space-age version of Rosie the Riveter from World War II — the capsule is carrying supplies and spacewalking gear for the station’s seven residents. US spacewalks have been suspended since an astronaut’s helmet took on water in March. NASA is sending extra absorbent pads for use in the helmets, in case an emergency spacewalk is needed while the investigation continues.

Boeing is also stealing memorabilia from historically black colleges and universities and tree seeds similar to those Apollo astronauts took to the moon that have become so-called moon trees here on Earth.

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