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Boeing is set to launch its new Starliner spacecraft on its first flight to orbit

What to expect from the capsule’s debut

On the morning of Friday, December 20th, an Atlas V rocket is set to launch to the International Space Station from Florida, carrying a spacecraft that’s never flown before. The CST-100 Starliner is a new passenger capsule developed by Boeing to take crews of up to seven people to low Earth orbit. No people will be on board the Starliner for this particular mission, but the flight could pave the way for the first riders to fly on the capsule sometime next year.

This launch is the penultimate test flight for Boeing as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a multiyear plan to develop new US-made vehicles to take NASA astronauts to and from the space station. Boeing is one of two companies, along with rival SpaceX, working on vehicles to make this happen. Originally, both SpaceX and Boeing were supposed to fly humans as early as 2017, but delays and technical issues have held back the program.

By the end of this year, though, the two companies will be on the precipice of sending humans into space. SpaceX already pulled off an uncrewed test flight of its vehicle, the Crew Dragon, back in March. Now it’s Boeing’s turn to the do the same thing with its Starliner. Here’s what to expect from Boeing’s mission — called the Orbital Flight Test, or OFT — and why it’s so important.

Back to the US

When the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA struck a deal with Russia’s space organization, Roscosmos, to fly the space agency’s personnel to the International Space Station on Russia’s Soyuz rocket.

It’s turned out to be a somewhat expensive and, at times, inconvenient deal. NASA spends roughly $81 million per seat on the Soyuz, and if the vehicle suffers from a failure, there’s no other option to get to the ISS. That scary prospect became very real when a Soyuz rocket carrying a NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut broke apart during flight last year, forcing an emergency landing. Luckily, both riders were okay, and the Soyuz returned to regular flights relatively quickly. But had the problem been more serious, there could have been a significant gap in flights to the ISS.

The Commercial Crew Program is designed to return NASA’s crewed launches to the US, with multiple options for getting crew to and from the International Space Station. In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing, initially giving them $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively, to partially fund the development of new crew capsules. (An audit recently revealed that Boeing received an additional $287 million since the final awards.) Part of those contracts involves meeting certain testing milestones, and performing an uncrewed test flight is the last big step before people can fly on board the Commercial Crew vehicles.

The Launch

This upcoming flight is essentially a dress rehearsal for the flights Boeing will perform once the Starliner is deemed ready to carry astronauts. The goal is to see how the Starliner holds up in the space environment. “It’s just a phenomenal opportunity for us to learn the truest performance of the spacecraft,” Phil McAlister, the director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development, said during a press conference. “Computer models are great but they only get us so far and seeing how the spacecraft actually performs in the operational environment of space is a huge confidence building measure.”

While no living beings will be on board, a smart dummy — nicknamed Rosie after Rosie the Riveter — will be along for the ride, equipped with sensors to collect data about the journey. The mannequin will be accompanied by nearly 600 pounds (270 kilograms) of cargo for the ISS crew, including food, clothing, and radiation-monitoring equipment.

Photo: Boeing

The Starliner’s ride to space is the Atlas V, the workhorse rocket from the United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Unlike SpaceX, which has quite a bit of experience launching cargo to the space station, this will be a new kind of flight for Boeing and ULA. The mission will mark the 81st flight of an Atlas V rocket, which has a near-perfect launch record, but it’ll be the first flight of the Starliner. To get the capsule where it needs to go, this Atlas V is accessorized to provide some extra oomph. The rocket will have two smaller boosters strapped to its base that will provide added thrust, and the upper portion of the rocket will have a second engine. (It usually has just one.)

The rocket-capsule pair is slated to take off from ULA’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:36AM ET, just before sunrise. It takes about 15 minutes for the Atlas V to deploy Starliner, though the rocket won’t actually drop the capsule off in orbit. The Atlas V is actually taking the Starliner to a very low-altitude, suborbital path. The idea is that this would make it easier for any astronauts to come back home if there’s an emergency and they need to abort the mission and land in the ocean. Once the Starliner is deployed, it’ll ignite its own engines, which will take the capsule into orbit.

The capsule will then lap the planet for just over a day before meeting up with the ISS early on Saturday morning. That’s when it’ll be time to dock.

Demonstration in Space

Some of the vehicles that visit the space station, such as SpaceX’s cargo Dragon capsule, don’t actually dock with the ISS. Instead, they are berthed, which is a somewhat different way to rendezvous. Essentially, they approach the station slowly and a crew member on board the ISS will use a long robotic arm to snag the vehicle and drag it closer to a docking port.

The Commercial Crew vehicles, on the other hand, shouldn’t need any help to reach the station. They’re designed to dock all on their own. Once Starliner reaches the ISS, it’ll attempt to automatically dock with one of the station’s standard docking ports, using a series of sensors and radars that will help guide the Starliner slowly toward its parking spot. This maneuver, slated for just after 8AM ET on December 21st, is a key task of the Starliner and one of the biggest demonstrations of the mission. The crew on board the ISS — NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch — won’t have the ability to take control of the Starliner remotely if anything goes wrong.

An artistic rendering of what Starliner’s docking at the ISS will look like.
Image: Boeing

“We have trained the crew for this, and they’ll be watching,” Pat Forrester, the astronaut office chief at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said during a press conference.

Once attached to the ISS, the Starliner will remain for about a week before it’s time to head back home. On the night of December 27th, the capsule is slated to detach from the station and swiftly make its way back to Earth. After distancing itself from the ISS, the Starliner will fire up its thrusters and take itself out of orbit. From there, it’ll be just 45 minutes for the Starliner to land back on the ground. The capsule will use a series of three parachutes to lower itself gently to the Earth and then deploy airbags to cushion its landing. Touchdown should occur at 5:47AM ET.

What Comes Next?

Upon the Starliner’s return, it’ll be time for lots of review. “We’ll obviously be poring over all of this spacecraft and launch vehicle data, going through every system, making sure that the spacecraft is solid in all of its subsystem areas,” John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a press conference.

After this, Boeing’s last major flight test is the big one: a crewed launch that will carry NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Michael Fincke, as well as a Boeing astronaut Christopher Ferguson. It’s still uncertain when crews will fly and whether Boeing or SpaceX will get to boast that they flew people first.

Boeing recently completed a test of the Starliner’s emergency abort system, which is the system that carries the vehicle to safety if there’s a major issue with the rocket during flight. Boeing fired up the emergency engines on a Starliner while it was sitting on a launchpad, demonstrating that they worked just fine. After the test, however, only two of the capsule’s three parachutes deployed, leading some to wonder if there was a significant failure. Boeing downplayed the problem, and a representative for the company said on Tuesday that that issue has since been addressed.

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann (L), Michael Fincke (C), and Boeing astronaut Christopher Ferguson (R).
Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA

As for SpaceX, the company still has one big test left before it can hope to fly its crew: another test of its own capsule’s emergency abort system in flight. It’s a significant milestone for SpaceX, which recently dealt with a major failure of its abort system. In April, a test version of the company’s Crew Dragon exploded during a test of the abort engines. SpaceX has since closed out the investigation on that issue, but the upcoming test will be important for the company to move forward.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine noted that the first SpaceX crews could fly in the first quarter of 2020 if all goes well, and Boeing officials have hinted at flying crews by mid-2020. In the meantime, NASA is running out of Soyuz seats for its astronauts, with the last flier scheduled to ride on a launch to the ISS in April 2020. The space agency is currently in negotiations with Roscosmos about buying two additional seats, one on a flight in the fall of 2020 and one on a flight in the spring of 2021. That way, NASA still has a way to get its astronauts to the ISS if there are any more Commercial Crew delays.

But with Friday’s launch, both SpaceX and Boeing are nearing the finish line to crewed flights — and 2020 may finally be the year when NASA astronauts fly from the US once again.

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