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Boeing will try again to launch Starliner after its previous attempt was scrubbed

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Later today, Boeing hopes to launch its Starliner capsule to the International Space Station. It's designed to carry NASA astronauts, but the last attempt almost ended in disaster because of faulty software settings. Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE reports from Orlando.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Just before dawn on a December morning in 2019, a rocket carrying Boeing's Starliner capsule lit up the Florida Space Coast sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH BARRETT: Three, two, one, and liftoff - the rise of Starliner and a new era of human spaceflight.

BYRNE: It looked to be a picture-perfect launch. But in space, something had gone wrong. The computer system was confused.

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JIM BRIDENSTINE: So we did have, obviously, some challenges today.

BYRNE: Then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke with reporters shortly after that launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

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BRIDENSTINE: It appears as though the mission elapsed timing system had an error in it, and that anomaly resulted in the vehicle believing that the time was different than it actually was.

BYRNE: The capsule's clock wasn't working correctly, which caused Starliner to fire its engines at the wrong time, using up its fuel and preventing it from getting to the space station. It was a major error. Boeing and NASA worked to fix the software problem and tried once again to launch the test flight last summer. But while waiting for liftoff, humidity had corroded some of the capsule's valves. The company called off the flight.

Boeing's Mark Nappi says engineers fixed the problem, and Starliner is ready to try once more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK NAPPI: The Boeing team is prepared and ready. The NASA-Boeing partnership is really strong, and it's a reflection of all the hard work that's been done.

BYRNE: After the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA awarded two companies - SpaceX and Boeing - contracts to launch NASA astronauts into space. The partnership, dubbed Commercial Crew, was designed to return human launch capabilities to the U.S. About six months after Boeing's failed test flight, NASA's other partner, SpaceX, sent the first NASA astronauts to the station. Since then, the company has launched more than half a dozen human missions to space - five for NASA and two private flights. Meanwhile, Boeing is stuck on the ground.

LAURA FORCZYK: And these delays, these setbacks with Starliner, are embarrassing. And not only are they embarrassing, they are expensive.

BYRNE: Space policy analyst Laura Forczyk says the NASA agreement with Boeing is what's called a fixed-price contract, meaning the agency gave Boeing a set amount of cash to design the system and launch astronauts. And with Boeing having issues elsewhere in the company - software problems on commercial jets like the 737 MAX - these issues are costing the company money.

FORCZYK: And any extra delays or setbacks - hardware problems, software problems - they need to take that money and eat it. So Boeing is losing money each time they delay.

BYRNE: There's a lot at stake for Boeing, and there's also a lot at stake for NASA, says the agency's Kathy Lueders.

KATHY LUEDERS: This is a really important step in our continued goal of having, you know, two U.S. crew transportation capabilities to the ISS.

BYRNE: While SpaceX has been proven to be wildly successful, NASA wants another provider in case something ever happens to SpaceX.

LUEDERS: And as you know, robust crew services is really important to our sustained commitment to our research, the science and technology development that we're doing on the ISS.

BYRNE: If all goes well on this Boeing test flight to the ISS, NASA astronauts could be on the next Starliner flight later this year, giving NASA yet another option to get to space.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.