Starliner Crewed Test Flight Rescheduled For This Weekend

12:20 minutes

A bright yellow vehicle carries a white capsule the size of a gazebo at night
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft rolls out of the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

A long-delayed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is back on the calendar for Saturday, June 1, carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s a demonstration flight as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, intended to show that the new spacecraft design can be a practical and safe way to get people into space. If the flight is successful, NASA can then consider using the Boeing Starliner system for crewed flights to the ISS, joining the current fleet of craft from SpaceX and the Russian Soyuz program.

The Starliner launch has been delayed numerous times. Its most recent launch attempt, on May 6, was scrubbed when systems flagged a bad valve in a rocket booster. That booster valve was replaced, but engineers then detected a small leak in the spacecraft’s helium thruster system, which led to still further delays. They have now determined that the flight can proceed even with the leaky system, allowing the upcoming launch attempt.

Science Friday senior producer Charles Bergquist joins guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross to talk about the upcoming launch, and about other stories from the week in science, including the return of an active solar region responsible for recent fantastic aurora displays, research into how the brain decodes the meaning of “not,” and the announcement of two new giant pandas headed to the National Zoo.

Segment Guests

Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Segment Transcript

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This is Science Friday. I’m Arielle-Duhaime Ross in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a conversation about plants and intelligence and why snails might thrive in Los Angeles. But first, the next few days are shaping up to be busy in space with a long-delayed test flight carrying astronauts to the Space Station. Here to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Charles Bergquist, SciFri’s senior producer. Hey, Charles.


ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So tell me about this launch. Why is it important? What’s going on?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this is a test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. It’s a demonstration to show to NASA that their new spacecraft, part of a program NASA calls Commercial Crew, can be a practical and safe way to get people into orbit. The spacecraft has been delayed a lot.

Most recently, it was supposed to launch on May 6. That launch was scrubbed due to a bad valve in a rocket booster. That booster valve was replaced, but then they found another leak in the spacecraft’s maneuvering system, which led to more delays.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, a leak doesn’t sound good on a spacecraft.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: No, it doesn’t. But it’s not a leak as in it’s going to let all the air out of the crew capsule or a fuel leak that could lead to an explosion. This leak is coming from a helium system in the service module of the spacecraft. They use squirts of helium gas and thrusters to do some maneuvering in orbit that doesn’t involve firing a rocket.

After the last launch was scrubbed, engineers looked at this leak and figured out that the flight should still be OK, even if the leak was 100 times stronger. It would also mean taking the spacecraft back to the factory to fix the leak. So the new plan is just to live with it and go ahead with this launch.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, so what is Boeing’s plan now if they’re going ahead with the launch?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so currently the plan is to launch midday on Saturday around 12:25 PM Eastern. This will be on an Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance, and it’ll carry two NASA astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, to the International Space Station. And if the flight is successful, NASA can then consider using this Boeing Starliner system as a way to get into orbit along with the craft from SpaceX and the Russian Soyuz craft that are the current ISS taxis.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: All right. Hopefully that test flight will be successful. And there’s other spaceflight news possible this weekend as well.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, this one is exciting, A robotic lander sample return mission going to the far side of the Moon. This is the Chinese Chang’e 6 mission, which was launched about four weeks ago. And the landing attempt is supposed to happen in early June.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: There have been other missions to the Moon, and scientists have sampled Moon rocks before. So why is this particular trip significant?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So they’re targeting a huge impact crater on the far side of the Moon called the South Pole-Aitken basin. This is the Moon’s oldest impact crater and also the largest. It’s– get this– more than 2,500 wide, 8 kilometers deep.

And the surface features on the far side of the Moon are a lot different from what we see on the near side. It’s a lot rougher with less smoothing out from lava. So researchers hope that getting rock samples from that side of the Moon could teach us things about how the Moon was formed and also about conditions in the solar system billions of years ago.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So what’s the timeline for this mission?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: It’s something of an open question because the Chinese Space Agency doesn’t tend to release a ton of information about their operations before they happen. Early plans called for a landing attempt June 2. The lander is supposed to gather about 2 kilograms of material.

There will be a scoop thing collecting dirt and rock samples that will be collected by a drill. And then it’ll lift off from the Moon again about two days after landing. But we’ll have to see. A lot of scientists around the world are really eager to see these samples.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: All right. Turning from the Moon to the Sun, there’s a sunspot news this week.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. You may remember a couple of weeks ago when people all over were able to see the aurora, and there were all those amazing pictures online.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Oh yeah, I remember.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. The group of sunspots that marks the very active region of the Sun responsible for the flares and coronal mass ejections that produce those northern lights has rotated back around the sun into view. And now that we can see it again, it looks like it’s still active.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Do we know if this means that we’re going to have more chances to see the aurora?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, it all depends just when and where the flares and coronal mass ejections take place. Earlier this month, there were 12 super-powerful X-class solar flares across six days, and that’s when we got the light show.

Now that this active region is back in view, it’s already produced one X1 flare on May 29. That could mean that there’s some auroral activity here on Earth in the next few days but probably not as far south as the last batch. But the region still has more time to act up again while it’s in view, so people should keep an eye on the space weather forecast.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: All right. Well, that was really a treat last time, so we can’t always be that lucky.


ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Back here on Earth, there’s news this week about a patient with a transparent window implanted in his skull. What’s going on there?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. This is a report published this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine about work with one individual, Jared Hager. He sustained a traumatic brain injury from a skateboarding accident back in 2019 and had to have about half of his skull removed.

At the height of the pandemic, there were delays in being able to make a prosthesis for him. So at that point, his brain was just covered by skin and connective tissue. And during that time, he took part in some research studies involving brain imaging. Fast forward, researchers have filled the hole in his skull with a transparent plastic window, basically Plexiglas, and they’re trying out an imaging technique called functional ultrasound imaging, which can’t normally be done through a skull.

But they found that it works through this clear window. And they were able to take images of his brain while he was awake and performing various tasks.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: It’s really beautiful that so much of this story has to do with the collaboration between this patient and this research team and his willingness to try this out, right?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, they said that he has been extremely generous with his time and making use of what otherwise would be a very troubling situation.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Should we be expecting more brain windows like this in the future?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this is a proof of concept, seeing if this ultrasound technique can work without the brain being essentially open. There’s still work to be done here. They say that this ultrasound imaging technique that they’re using apparently has some advantages over things like fMRI in terms of resolution. Some other imaging techniques might require you to implant electrodes into the brain, and this doesn’t. So that’s another plus.

But beyond the imaging stuff, the scientists here say that there are some advantages just to being able to see like with your eyes into the skull like this. Some people with brain injuries can develop clots under their prostheses. And with this transparent window, you can keep an eye on things.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Huh, well, that’s pretty clever. I like that. In other brain news, researchers are now studying how the human brain processes words like “not”.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, this is a little weird. So if you ask me how things are going and I say, not bad, what do I mean by that?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Well, I think typically you’d say “good”, right?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so this is work published this week in the journal PLOS Biology, and researchers were looking at what’s going on in the brain when it interprets that kind of negation, the notting of something. And they did a few different things.

First, they asked people to rank on a scale of very bad to very, very good where a negated phrase like “not bad” might fall on that scale. And then they also used imaging techniques to watch what’s going on in the brain when a person hears something like “not happy”. First, it apparently takes more processing time for the brain to deal with this than when you hear someone say sad.

But they also– this is cool. They found that when you hear a phrase like “not happy”, first, they see the area in the brain that would respond to “happy” gets activated. And then it sort of gets muted a bit. So the word “not” is sort of attenuating the word that comes after instead of simply inverting its meaning.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So it’s not an antonym. It’s not a one-for-one relationship. “Not bad” does not equal “good”. There’s more nuance there.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Right. If your coffee is not hot, it’s not necessarily cold.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. That makes sense to me. That seems– yeah, that seems right. But it’s fascinating that they were able to look at this through these techniques.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, different approaches to learning more about what’s going on in the brain. It’s one of these interesting linguistics things like, why do we speak the way we do? How do we interpret the world, convey that to others?

But they point out that this idea of negation shows up a lot in technical and legal documents. You’ve got phrases like “something is not unlike something else”. And they also say that this concept of what negation really means is an area that computers and AI have trouble dealing with.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Hmm, interesting. OK, so we can learn about a lot of things by looking at this.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: It’s not unuseful.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: [LAUGHS] OK, you have one more strange brain trick story about extra digits, I hear.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, we first told you about this story three years ago, researchers who had given people an extra prosthetic thumb on one of their hands. It would be sort of attached to your palm below the little finger, sort of opposite your real thumb. And you activated it using a pressure sensor under your big toe.

In 2022, they took this device to a science festival in the UK and had almost 600 different regular people, just fairgoers from kids to senior citizens, try out using this bonus prosthetic thumb. And in the journal Science Robotics, this week, they say that 98% of the users were able to successfully manipulate objects using that extra thumb during the first minute of use, which–


CHARLES BERGQUIST: –is impressive, right?


CHARLES BERGQUIST: Not everyone was able to do it equally well. They had a bunch of different tasks for users to try out. Some did better than others. Very young participants tended to have the most problems.

But in general, it seems your brain is surprisingly able to make this extra thumb part of its map of the world.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: That’s incredible. Is this the kind of technology that people might be able to buy and wear in the future? Or is– or was this more of an art project?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this started as a design project, but they say that people did actually find it pretty useful. But this research is more about seeing how easy it is for people’s brains to adapt to all sorts of assistive technologies or prosthetics, not just replacing something that was lost but maybe adding new capabilities like, what if you gave someone an extra arm or a prehensile tail?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I just kind of get lost in that kind of news. I’m deeply, deeply interested in seeing where this goes. Finally, some important, cute animal news, it looks like the National Zoo will be getting some new pandas.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yes, this is big, cute animal news for panda fans. You might recall that the much-loved pandas left the Smithsonian’s National Zoo last November. But it was announced this week that, by the end of the year, there should be a new pair of giant pandas in residence, again, on loan from China.

They are both two years old, which is supposedly like early adolescence in panda years. So they’re very playful, exploratory, clumsy. They are a male named Bao Li, meaning treasure and energetic, and a female, Xing Bao, which means green and treasure. Once they arrive, they’ll be in quarantine for about 30 days, and then they’ll have a few weeks to settle in before zoo visitors can actually see them. So don’t book your tickets to Washington just yet.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Fantastic news. Charles Bergquist, Science Friday’s senior producer.

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Meet the Producer

About Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Arielle Duhaime-Ross is freelance science journalist, artist, podcast, and TV host based in Portland, OR.

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