SpaceX's biggest rivals are about to test-launch a new astronaut space taxi for the first time
- On Friday, Boeing plans to launch its new CST-100 Starliner spaceship into orbit for the first time atop a United Launch Alliance rocket.
- No people will ride inside the space capsule on this flight: It's a demonstration meant to show NASA the vehicle is safe to taxi astronauts to and from space.
- Starliner should lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6:36 a.m. ET on December 20, dock with the International Space Station a day later, and return to Earth on December 27.
- NASA funded the vehicle's development through its Commercial Crew Programme because the agency currently has no American ship to fly astronauts.
- SpaceX, a major competitor to Boeing and ULA, completed a similar flight test in March with its Crew Dragon capsule. Yet both companies are years behind schedule in delivering flight-approved spaceships to NASA.
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"In the midst of doing all the work, you don't step back and look at what you've accomplished," Kathy Lueders, who manages the program for NASA, said during a press briefing on Tuesday. But "when people see now the vehicle's out there - the integrated vehicle on the [launch] pad - then it becomes real. It really becomes real."
The program is competition between private companies for billions of dollars' worth of government spaceflight development and flight contracts. More importantly, though, it's an effort to restore NASA's ability to launch astronauts from American soil for the first time since July 2011 - when the agency retired its space shuttle fleet.
No people will ride aboard Starliner on its inaugural launch into orbit, a demonstration mission which Boeing calls the Orbital Flight Test. Rather, the flight is designed to put the rocket and its ship through all the paces - with a spacesuit-clad mannequin named Rosie inside - and show it's safe to fly NASA astronauts to and from terra firma in the near future.
Starliner now sits atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA)-built Atlas V rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft is slated to lift off at exactly 6:36 a.m. ET on Friday, December 20, dock with the International Space Station a little more than 24 hours later, and return to Earth in one piece on December 27.
If all goes well with this test mission, two men and one woman will climb aboard a Starliner in mid-2020 and become its first live crew members to take flight.
America's commercial space race is heating up
However, Starliner is one of two commercial spaceships that NASA is paying to develop.
Starliner's and Crew Dragon's development have not been without problems, though. A few months after Demo-1, for example, the same Crew Dragon capsule recovered from the mission exploded during a ground test meant to try out the vehicle's launch escape system for astronauts. (NASA refused to share photos, videos, or audio of the failure with Business Insider after we filed an Freedom of Information Act request. The agency denied our request for the taxpayer-funded multimedia, plus an appeal to its denial, citing its right to protect SpaceX's trade secrets and other confidential information - even though Elon Musk, the company's founder, said in October that "NASA can share all of our IP with anyone that NASA wants.")
Boeing has met plenty of its own challenges in developing the Starliner, too, including leaky fuel valves and disappointing parachute systems. As a result, both companies are years behind schedule; the first crewed launches were initially planned for late 2017.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine's frustration with such delays boiled over in the fall, when he tweeted about the problem on the eve of a big SpaceX presentation about Starship, the company's planned future rocket ship.
"NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It's time to deliver," he said.
The first delivery may arrive within a couple of months, courtesy of SpaceX. According to NASA, SpaceX will attempt to launch a full Crew Dragon abort test no sooner than January 2020, and then its first astronauts on the spaceship no earlier than February 2020.
Meanwhile, Boeing has already completed its launch-abort test and is targeting mid-2020 for a first crewed flight aboard Starliner. Once the ships show they can fly people safely, billions of dollars' worth of NASA flight contracts will be on the table.
But just in case there are issues, NASA spaceflight managers are exploring the purchase of more seats from Russia, possibly around $100 million per round-trip flight (based on recent monopoly-fueled price increases).
Joel Montalbano, NASA's deputy manager for the International Space Station Program, said during Wednesday's press briefing that the last Soyuz seat is reserved for around April 2020. Montalbano told Business Insider the agency is looking into buying two more Soyuz seats for its astronauts: one on a mission launching in the fall of that year, and another seat on a spring 2021 mission.
Critics have lampooned CCP's delays in delivering a usable crew vehicle on-schedule. Lueders defended the program's timeline, though, citing past spaceflight development projects.
"Building new spacecraft and developing hardware is really hard," Lueders said. "Folks say it looks like it's taken a long time, but I think when you go back and look at development history over time, this program - overall - has been doing a good job of laying out and meeting its obligations."
Boeing plans to land and recover the spaceship from Friday's mission and then refurbish it for a second crewed flight test. Astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams is slated to make that flight with fellow astronaut Josh Cassada.
"Make sure you tell them to bring it back in good shape," Williams apparently told Pat Forrester, NASA's astronaut office chief at Johnson Space Center.
How to watch live coverage of the CST-100 Starliner launch
The weather outlook for a flight on Friday is about 70 percent favorable, according to Will Ulrich, launch weather officer for the US Air Force's 45th Weather Squadron.
If liftoff goes well, NASA TV also plans to broadcast key moments of the uncrewed Starliner's flight to and from space.
A full schedule of events is available at the station's website.
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