Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test Still on for Friday Morning

Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test Still on for Friday Morning

Boeing, NASA, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are still “go” for launch of Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of the CST-100 Starliner commercial crew system at 6:36:43 am ET tomorrow morning.  The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable, with surface winds the biggest concern.  The launch will be broadcast on NASA TV.

Starliner is being developed as a public-private partnership (PPP) between NASA and Boeing.  SpaceX has a similar PPP with NASA for its Crew Dragon system.

ULA’s Atlas V rocket will launch Starliner into a suborbital trajectory. Starliner’s own propulsion system will take it the rest of the way to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).  If launch takes place as planned, it will arrive at ISS on Saturday morning at 8:27 am ET, spend about one week docked to the ISS, and return to land at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner atop its Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41), Dec, 19, 2019.  Walking past the pad are Jim Chilton, senior vice president for Boeing Space and Launch, left, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Starliner is the first U.S. crew space capsule designed to land on land rather than in the ocean, similar to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo splashed down in the ocean, as will SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.  Starliner is capable of a water landing in case there is an emergency, but Boeing has three other ground landing sites in case weather makes a White Sands touchdown inadvisable.

The airplane-like U.S. space shuttle was a completely different design and landed on runways.

No one will be aboard Starliner this time.  The only passenger is an instrumented test dummy named Rosie (after Rosie the Riveter of World War II fame).

The OFT is a prelude to a Crew Flight Test (CFT), both of which are part of the process to certify the system for operational missions that are called Post-Certification Missions (PCMs).  Today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard, and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana held a press conference with the crews for the CFT and first PCM missions.

L-R: Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana; NASA astronauts Josh Cassada, Suni Willians, and Nicole Mann; Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson; NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine; and NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard.  NASA astronaut Mike Fincke is at the podium. Dec. 19, 2019, KSC. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson (a former NASA astronaut), are the crew for the CFT mission.  The date has not been set.  It depends on the results of the upcoming OFT.  Fincke and Ferguson revealed, however, that they will remain at the ISS for 6 months, rather than the short duration test flight originally planned.

NASA has not been able to launch anyone to the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  Ferguson, in fact, commanded that last shuttle mission, STS-135.  It purchases crew transportation services from Russia and the last seat is on an April 2020 mission.  NASA is talking with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, about purchasing seats on flights in the fall of 2020 and possibly spring 2021.

The goal, however, is for the Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew systems to be flying by then.  As the launch dates for both the Boeing and SpaceX missions continued to slip, however, NASA announced last year that it had amended its contract with Boeing to include the possibility of extending the duration of the CFT if needed.  On April 3, 2019, the two confirmed that the CFT would, in fact, be a long duration mission, but did not say how long.  Today Ferguson said it will be a 6-month mission.  He visited ISS on space shuttle missions, but this will be his first long duration stay there.  Fincke has been on three long duration ISS missions already.

NASA astronauts Suni Willians and Josh Cassada will fly on the first PCM mission.  Starliner can accommodate five people and NASA plans to use four of the seats.  Other crew assignments are pending.

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