NASA chief excited for Starliner launch, touts importance of competition

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson spoke at the beginning of a flight readiness review for OFT-2 held on July 22, 2021.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson spoke at the beginning of a flight readiness review for OFT-2 held on July 22, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Update for Aug. 3: NASA and Boeing have decided to stand down from backup launch attempts on both Tuesday and Wednesday as officials investigate a valve issue on the Starliner spacecraft. The Altas V rocket is scheduled to roll back from the launch site to the Vertical Integration Facility on Wednesday morning. The next available launch window has not yet been announced. This is a developing story and we will post updates as available.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is ready to cheer on the launch of Boeing's Starliner crew capsule on a vital uncrewed test flight this week.

Boeing and NASA are gearing up to launch a mission dubbed Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS). Starliner is perched atop its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and looking to blast off from Space Launch Complex 41 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Tuesday, Aug. 3 at 1:20 p.m. EDT (1720 GMT). 

"This [flight] is one of many exciting things happening this year here at Kennedy Space Center," Nelson said during a prelaunch news conference held on Thursday (July 29), held when the mission team was targeting launch the next day. 

Related: Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2: Live updates
In photos: Boeing's Starliner Orbital Test Flight 2 mission to the International Space Station

Starliner will spend about one week at the orbital outpost before returning to Earth under parachute for a landing in New Mexico. If all goes according to plan, NASA will give Boeing the green light to begin launching astronauts with the Starliner spacecraft later this year, a vital milestone for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. 

Nelson grew up on the Space Coast and represented the region in Congress for decades. A huge fan of space, he said it's his privilege to now lead NASA. Nelson called the team working on this launch "incredible" and said he is excited to be here as Boeing prepares to get NASA's second commercial crew spacecraft operational. 

"Last week's flight readiness review, it was smooth as glass," Nelson said. "The only thing I'm really concerned about is the weather." 

During his remarks, Nelson focused on the role Starliner will play as a second private vehicle capable of ferrying NASA astronauts to the space station; when the capsule becomes fully operational, it will join SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle, which is currently conducting its second long-term stay in orbit. Nelson said that having two commercial partners is incredibly important for reliable, sustainable access to space. 

"Competition is good, not only for the obvious reasons that it brings about the most cost-effective and efficient work — but what it does is gives you a backup," he said. 

Nelson said the "proof is in the pudding" that NASA needs two commercial vehicles based on the anomaly that occurred during Starliner's first attempt at an uncrewed test flight, in December 2019. During that attempt, the vehicle suffered several glitches, got stuck in the wrong orbit and had to head back to Earth without meeting up with the space station. 

"What if we hadn't had two competitors and Boeing was the only one?" Nelson said. "That's enough demonstration of why we want competition."

Since his remarks, Starliner's long-awaited second launch, which had been targeting Friday (July 30), has been delayed a little longer due to an unexpected situation on the space station. On Thursday (July 29), Russia's new Nauka module docked with the space station; shortly after, the module's thrusters began firing unexpectedly, causing the space station to tilt

The anomaly was caused by a software glitch, Russia's space agency has since said, and teams were able to counteract the movement within about 45 minutes by firing thrusters on the Progress 78 spacecraft and the Zvezda service module. However, NASA and Boeing wanted to ensure that the space station was in order before launching a new vehicle to visit it. Other activities near the launch site meant that the next opportunity for Starliner wouldn't come until Tuesday (Aug. 3).

After a brief stay on the launch pad, the OFT-2 Starliner capsule and its Atlas V rocket were rolled back to shelter from harsh weather on July 30, 2021, after a delay pushed the flight to no earlier than Aug. 3, 2021.

After a brief stay on the launch pad, the OFT-2 Starliner capsule and its Atlas V rocket were rolled back to shelter from harsh weather on July 30, 2021, after a delay pushed the flight to no earlier than Aug. 3, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The rocket has rolled back to its hangar until launch in case of bad weather, but both the vehicle and the spacecraft are ready to launch. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will dock with the station on Wednesday (Aug. 4), and stay attached for less than a week before returning home. 

Once Starliner is certified to carry humans, NASA will have two different spacecraft at their disposal to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. The agency envisions a future where the agency's astronauts and those of its international partners all utilize the various types of spacecraft capable of reaching the orbiting laboratory. Nelson applauded the relationship between NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, during his visit to Kennedy Space Center. 

"Terrestrially, we have enormous tensions with Russia," Nelson said. "In space, we have cooperation." 

The agency is working closely with Roscosmos to put a Russian cosmonaut on an upcoming flight aboard one of the new commercial vehicles, perhaps on SpaceX's Crew-4 mission that will launch in 2022. Cosmonauts previously flew on NASA's space shuttles before that fleet retired in 2011.

For nearly a decade between that development and the certification of SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle, Russia's Soyuz capsules were the only means of reaching the space station. Preventing reliance on any single type of vehicle has been the driving philosophy behind NASA's decision to support development of new crew ships, and to hire two companies for the task — hence Nelson's focus on the success of OFT-2. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.