Historic first flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft still on track for Friday

ULA to launch Starliner Friday at 6:36 a.m. from Cape Canaveral

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, topped by the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, stand on Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 4, 2019. (Credits: Boeing)
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, topped by the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, stand on Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 4, 2019. (Credits: Boeing) (Copyright 2019 The Boeing Company)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA officials say the maiden voyage into space for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and its passenger, "Rosie the astronaut,” are progressing smoothly toward a Friday morning liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

For more than six years, teams have been working toward this week, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders said, and seeing Starliner out on the pad this week, “it really becomes real.”

After the space shuttle program ended, Boeing and SpaceX were selected by the U.S. space agency to develop spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Following in the footsteps of SpaceX’s successful uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft in March, it’s now Boeing’s turn to shine.

During a pre-launch news conference Tuesday at Kennedy Space Center, representatives with NASA, Boeing and ULA spoke of the history behind this first flight.

“When they did their final closeout on Saturday, it was a special moment for the team,” Boeing Commercial Crew Program vice president and program manager John Mullholland said. “All systems are checking out good and so we’re really exacted about that.”

The unpiloted Starliner will launch atop a ULA Atlas V rocket Friday at 6:36 a.m. from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Air Force forecaster Will Ulrich said currently there is only a 20% chance of weather leading to a delay on Friday. If the launch pushes to Saturday, those chances of a weather delay increase to 30%. A disturbance will move onto the Florida peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico late Saturday, which could cause issues if the launch delays passed Saturday.

About 25 hours after liftoff, the spacecraft will dock at the International Space Station, Mullholland said.

On the station, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch will be monitoring the spacecraft’s approach and docking.

Starliner is carrying about 600 pounds of supplies -- including food and some clothing for the astronauts -- and a sensor-wearing test flight dummy named “Rosie the astronaut."

The spacecraft will spend about a week at the ISS before returning to Earth. The process of undocking from the space station to landing is only about four hours, Mullholland said, and the de-orbit burn to touch down in White Sands, New Mexico takes about 40 minutes.

About two weeks after touch down, Boeing officials said they hope to have a system-by-system review of the flight.

Although this voyage is without humans on board, NASA astronaut office Chief Pat Forrester said everyone working on the mission is thinking about the crew Starliner will carry next year: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson.

“I don’t think there’s anybody going about their work who doesn’t think about Chris, Nicole and Mike,” Forrester said, adding the crew is affectionately called “Fergie, Duke and Spanky.”

Boeing and NASA officials said they won’t know when that launch, known as the Crewed Test Flight, will happen until after Starliner’s return from its critical test flight. The first crewed flight and the OFT Starliner spacecraft are two separate spacecraft built for those tests.

The OFT Starliner spacecraft launching Friday will also fly astronauts next year if all goes well. NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Josh Cassada will be on that flight.

Over coffee with Williams Tuesday morning, Forrester said the veteran astronaut reminded him she and Cassada will need that spacecraft soon.

“The last thing she said to me was, ‘Make sure you tell them to bring it back in good shape’ so I think we’ll do that," Forrester said.

Launch details

What: Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s maiden voyage to the International Space Station

Rocket: ULA Atlas V

Launchpad: Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

Launch date/time: Friday at 6:36 a.m.

Backup launch dates: Dec. 21- 23

Weather: 80% Go; if launch delays to Dec. 21, chances drop to 70%

Learn more about the Starliner spacecraft below:

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