Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images
NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson observe a moment of silence with teams from NASA, Boeing and the White Sands Missile Range, honoring the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, September 11, 2019 at the White Sands Missile Range outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. The joint teams gathered in the desert to rehearse landing and crew extrication from Boeings CST-100 Starliner, which will be used to carry humans to the International Space Station. Mann, Fincke and Ferguson will fly to the space station aboard the Starliner for the Boeing Crew Flight Test mission.

Boeing Faces Huge Test With the Launch of Starliner

Dec. 19, 2019
Test flight for astronaut taxi kicks off new generation of space travel.

NASA’s effort to resume flying American astronauts on American spacecraft—something that hasn’t happened since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011—faces a major test this weekend.

Over the past decade, a lot of attention has been paid to billionaire space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. His company, SpaceX, has been launching payloads into low Earth orbit for years, replete with balletic booster landings and even a space going Tesla Roadster.

But as far as humans are concerned, the U.S. has been dependent on its chief geopolitical rival—Russia—to provide billions of dollars worth of taxi rides to the International Space Station.

That arrangement could end soon if a test launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, goes as planned on Friday morning. That’s when Boeing Co. hopes to fly its new spacecraft on an initial voyage to the ISS—a mission that could set the stage for human flight in 2020. (SpaceX, which will also perform manned missions for NASA, completed a successful test flight of its new Crew Dragon ship in March.)

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner, scheduled to lift off at 6:36 a.m., sits atop an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed. It’s expected to dock with the ISS about 25 hours later and return early on Dec. 28 with a predawn landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Though flying unmanned this time, it can carry as many as seven passengers—four more than  the Apollo 11 spacecraft that headed to the moon 50 years ago.

In 2014, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station. Since then, both companies have suffered delays that have put the commercial crew program more than two years behind schedule. 

“For us to fly crew, we have to fly crew safely,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s manager for the commercial crew program, said Tuesday at a news conference. “It doesn’t make any sense for us to do it in a way that we’re not going to be comfortable.”

NASA has declined to set dates on manned missions, pending the outcome of test flights such as the one set for Friday. For Boeing, a successful mission will bring some rare good news; the embattled company has been under fire since 2018 over its now-halted 737 Max program. Two of the commercial planes crashed, killing 346 people. 

Tomorrow’s flight of the Starliner includes 595 pounds (270 kilograms) of cargo for the ISS crew—food, clothing, radiation-detection equipment and a few holiday presents, NASA officials said.

Also aboard will be a test mannequin named Rosie—wearing a red polka dot bandana—in a nod to Rosie the Riveter, the iconic representation of women who built B-17 heavy bombers during World War II. The device will record data on the type of forces and conditions astronauts can expect while riding the Starliner.

On its flight of the Crew Dragon, SpaceX carried Ripley, an anthropomorphic test device outfitted with sensors, named in honor of Sigourney Weaver’s character in the film “Alien.” 

Still, because of the scheduling uncertainties, NASA has begun talks with the Russian space agency about procuring two additional seats on Soyuz missions in fall 2020 and spring 2021, according to Joel Montalbano, deputy manager of the space station program.

And even if NASA begins manned missions next year, the U.S. has said astronauts from both countries will still fly on Soyuz, Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, depending on ISS crew needs and which vehicle is set to launch.

Meanwhile, NASA’s inspector general last month reported that the agency is paying Boeing an average of $90 million per seat to fly astronauts, compared with only $55 million for SpaceX. The report also disclosed that NASA had paid Boeing, a major government defense contractor, an additional $287.2 million to adjust future launch schedules caused by delays in the commercial crew program.

Boeing rejected the report’s conclusion on the $90 million seat price, but didn’t offer an alternative cost figure. While Musk took to Twitter last month to voice his outrage, SpaceX hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

By Justin Bachman

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