NASA, Boeing clear Starliner for Friday launch


Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Boeing’s Starliner capsule, carrying an instrumented astronaut test dummy nicknamed “Rosie,” is on track for launch Friday on an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station, mission managers said Tuesday. The flight is a major milestone in NASA’s push to resume launching U.S. crews from American soil.

The CST-100 Starliner, perched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, is scheduled for liftoff from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:36 a.m. EST Friday. Forecasters are predicting an 80 percent chance of acceptable if windy weather in the wake of a cold front.

Assuming an on-time launch, the capsule will catch up with the lab complex early Saturday, moving in for a docking at the station’s forward port around 8:27 a.m. Along with giving Rosie a lift, the Starliner will deliver about 600 pounds of food, clothing and equipment, along with a selection of holiday gifts for the lab’s crew.

The flight plan calls for the Starliner to remain docked over Christmas, returning to Earth on Dec. 28 with a pre-dawn parachute and airbag-assisted landing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

“We are actually tracking no spacecraft anomalies right now,” John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, said after a launch readiness review Tuesday. “The spacecraft is in really good shape.”

So is the Atlas 5.

“The United Launch Alliance team is just thrilled to be a part of this,” said John Elbon, ULA’s chief operating officer. “We’ve launched a lot of important payloads … but there’s just something special about launching humans, and to be a part of the program that’s going tp do that is a really big deal for us.”

The last time an Atlas rocket launched an astronaut was in 1963 when Gordon Cooper climbed into orbit aboard his “Faith 7” Mercury capsule.

As with the Starliner, “we’re tracking no significant issues with the launch vehicle,” Elbon said. “We’re looking forward to Friday morning and hearing the words ‘go Atlas, go Centaur, go Starliner!”

Since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA has been forced to buy seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. and partner astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Seats on recent missions have cost more than $80 million each and since 2006, NASA has spent $3.9 billion for 70 Soyuz “tickets.”

In 2014, after a series of competitions, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX would share $6.8 billion to develop independent space taxis, the first new U.S. crewed spacecraft since the 1970s.

Under a $2.6 billion contract, SpaceX is building a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship that will ride into orbit atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing’s Starliner is being developed under a $4.2 billion contract.

Both companies have been delayed by funding shortfalls in Congress and by a series of technical issues, including trouble with parachutes and emergency abort systems.

SpaceX carried out a successful unpiloted flight to the space station in March but suffered a major setback in April when that same Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed during a ground test. The California rocket builder has recovered from that incident and is preparing for a dramatic in-flight abort test in the next several weeks.

If that test goes well, SpaceX will press ahead for launch of a crew Dragon carrying two NASA astronauts — Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken — on a long-awaited piloted test flight to clear the way for operational crew rotation missions.

In a similar fashion, Boeing’s unpiloted test flight this week is one of the company’s final hurdles before it can launch a three-person crew — Boeing executive and former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, veteran NASA astronaut Mike Fincke and rookie Nicole Mann — on their own test flight.

It’s not yet known which company will make it to the finish line first, but SpaceX would appear to have the edge because the Atlas 5 has multiple launches on its early 2020 manifest, including a high-priority science mission in February followed by two military flights in March and April.

SpaceX operates two launch pads in Florida, giving it more scheduling flexibility. But multiple reviews will be required before either company is cleared to carry astronauts, and no launch date decisions have been made.

But NASA needs one or both companies to fly soon. The last currently-contracted seat aboard a Soyuz will be used by astronaut Chris Cassidy in April.

The agency is negotiating with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to buy two more seats to protect against the possibility of additional delays in NASA’s commercial crew program, but no final decisions have been made.