Boeing Starliner: Critical NASA test launch nears

Years behind schedule, and overbudget test launch is a ‘go’, with crewed mission likely next.

Friday's seven-day orbital flight test is a mission without a crew to the International Space Station for NASA's Commercial Crew Program [File: Boeing via NASA/Flickr]

Eager for Friday’s pre-dawn launch to the International Space Station (ISS), Kathy Lueders, NASA‘s Commercial Crew Program manager, said: “All that hard work. All the verifications. All that working through the analysis and making sure the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. It’s there in a closed-out vehicle. Ready to fly.”

Of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft standing at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida, Lueders said: “When people see now the vehicle’s out there … On the pad, then it becomes real.”

Two years behind schedule, hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and under mounting pressure from the White House to get off the ground, the human-rated Starliner’s maiden voyage into space is a “go”.

Something to prove

Friday’s test launch will be a pivotal moment for both Boeing and the Commercial Crew Program, wherein NASA has underwritten the development of spacecraft and launch systems by United States aerospace companies. Because NASA and Boeing have recently come under close scrutiny and criticism, they both have something to prove.

Last month NASA’s Office of the Inspector General published a damning report that described NASA’s Commercial Crew Program as ready and willing to accept and pay for repeated delays that the inspector general said were due to errors made by Boeing. To date, NASA has paid Boeing just less than $4.5bn for developing the Starliner.

Boeing’s direct competitor in the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX already launched an uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS last March, putting Elon Musk’s upstart company ahead of the aerospace behemoth. What’s more, SpaceX has come this far for roughly $2.6bn.

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft was the first Commercial Crew Program spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station [File: NASA]

After the Starliner’s successful pad abort test in early November, and clearing a readiness review this week, all that is left is to wait for the countdown clock to run out and Friday’s forecast for mostly clear skies to hold.

The craft

The launch, scheduled for 6:36am US Eastern time (11:36 GMT) on Friday, will be the beginning of the Starliner’s critical seven-day orbital flight test, or OFT. Boeing’s uncrewed capsule will lift off from the Space Coast and into Low Earth Orbit to rendezvous and dock with the ISS on Saturday.

Boeing’s launch system, called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft, is a reusable capsule designed to transport up to seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, up to destinations in low earth orbit.

The capsule will catch its ride atop an Atlas V rocket for the first stage and then a Centaur rocket for the second. Both are manufactured by the United Launch Alliance – a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture.

“We’re tracking no significant issues with the launch vehicle,” said John Elbon, chief operating officer for United Launch Alliance. “We are looking forward to Friday morning and hearing the words: ‘Go Atlas. Go Centaur. Go Starliner’.”

Since the Space Shuttle program was shuttered in 2011, NASA has been sending astronauts to the ISS by purchasing seats on the Russian space agency’s Soyuz launch system. NASA has paid an average of $85.4m a seat for 70 completed and planned missions.

If the Starliner’s flight test is a success, plans are in the works for crewed missions to launch from the US on American-made vehicles, for less, sometime next year.

The intent

While this flight test is uncrewed, the whole intent is to prove that the Starliner is capable of safely transporting astronauts to and from the ISS. To do that, Boeing has outfitted Rosie the Anthropomorphic Test Device with a variety of data-collecting sensors and will strap her into the commander’s chair.

“We’ll hear it said that there are no passengers, or people, humans on this particular launch. And I’ll apologise in advance to Rosie. But all along we’re trained to look through the lens of the operator, of the astronaut,” said Pat Forrester, astronaut office chief, Johnson Space Center. “We consider this a dress rehearsal for CFT [crewed flight test].”

When Rosie arrives at the ISS she will deliver to her hosts some 270kg of food, clothing, and radiation-monitoring equipment, as well as some gifts from home.

The ISS crew sent a joint statement on Tuesday that read: “We are looking forward to saying the words ‘Tally Starliner’.”

Early on Saturday, December 28, the Starliner will pull away from the ISS and start its four-hour journey home, landing at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, at 5:47am US Eastern time (10:47am GMT).

The weather question

NASA and Boeing may be ready to launch the Starliner, but before ignition can begin, the weather must be nearly perfect. At the time of writing, the 45th Space Wing’s Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral was maintaining an outlook of an 80 percent chance for safe launch conditions.

“All we will be looking for are a few isolated showers pushing in off the Atlantic waters,” said Will Ulrich, the squadron’s launch weather officer. “If one of those showers were to push onshore, say during the count it could produce winds of around 25 to 30 knots, which is nearing some of those [acceptable limits].”

Source: Al Jazeera