Boeing prepares for launch
Starliner capsule a critical milestone for NASA’s astronaut spacecraft program
In the final days of 2019, Boeing will endeavor to squeak through a major milestone for NASA’s astronaut spacecraft program, finishing off a year marked by challenges and delays for the two contractors hoping to take humans to space one day.
One of those contractors, SpaceX, already completed the milestone Boeing will attempt on Friday. In March, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft demonstrated it could launch to and return from the International Space Station.
Boeing will try to do the same with its CST-100 Starliner capsule atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 41. It has one shot at it at 6:36 a.m., about half an hour before sunrise.
The mission is a critical “dress rehearsal,” said Pat Forrester, chief of the astronaut office at Houston’s Johnson Space Center during a pre-launch press briefing. Boeing will launch without crew, as SpaceX did, to prove the capsule can safely perform the mission before NASA OK’s both companies to launch with crew aboard, which will likely come sometime next year if Boeing is successful.
Astronauts Chris Ferguson, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke — or as they’re known in Houston, “Fergie, Duke and Spanky” — would perform that mission.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the office that, as they’ve gone about their work, they haven’t thought about Chris, and Nicole and Mike,” Forrester said.
Ensuring the capsules are safe enough to transport humans has been one of the largest challenges facing the program, called Commercial Crew. The program is at least two years behind schedule — crewed launches were supposed to begin in 2017. All year, NASA has said hoped to perform piloted missions by the end of 2019, returning to the nation the capability to send American astronauts to space from U.S. soil, something that hasn’t happened since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
But technical issues, problems with parachute development and two major missteps during testing set the program back. In April, SpaceX’s test capsule exploded during a test of its abort engines. And in June 2018, Starliner experienced a fire during a test of its abort engines, too. Boeing was paid $4.2 billion for its contract, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion.
“The thing I’m most proud of, with Boeing and both of our Commercial Crew providers is, as they found issues, they didn’t shortcut,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew
Program. “We all understood that our mission, for us to fly crew, we have to fly crew safely.”
To that end, there will be one passenger aboard Starliner Friday morning: A test dummy named after Rosie the Riveter. SpaceX also went with a female name for its dummy in March, naming her Ripley after Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” films.
“We named her Rosie, which is just really kind of pulling back from our legacy and really inspirational, I think, to a lot of our workforce today,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “And we’re really looking forward to the data she’s going to provide and the benefit she’ll make for our mission.”
Rosie will be equipped with sensors that will give teams a better idea of how an astronaut may fare during a mission.
Conditions are looking favorable for Starliner’s launch Friday. The Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron is forecasting 80% favorable weather and conditions just before sunrise that could make for a “very picturesque launch,” said Will Ulrich, a launch weather officer with the squadron.
If the mission launches Friday, Starliner would arrive at the International Space Station on Saturday where it will spend about a week before returning to Earth.