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The Boeing crew capsule soared into orbit Thursday on a repeat test flight without astronauts, after years on the ground with flaws that could have doomed the spacecraft.

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 right orbit, giving chase to the space station quickly. But the all-important rendezvous and docking loomed.

“It’s another big day for us,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and director of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “So we might have a few sleepless nights 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 are not going to fly (crews) unless we feel we have reduced the risk,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of space operations, on the eve of takeoff.

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 dependence 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 that Boeing’s Starliner succeeds, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. .

“We still want to have a backup in that case,” Nelson said 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.

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 version of Rosie the Riveter from World War II – the capsule carries provisions and spacewalking equipment 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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