KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Alarm set? Check. Jacket? Check. Lots of coffee? Triple check. Spectators along the Space Coast are preparing to watch a mannequin named “Rosie” take the first ride into space on Boeing’s astronaut spacecraft Friday as part of a critical test for the capsule designed to fly humans as soon as next year.
The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will blast off Friday from Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket before sunrise. The launch is part of Boeing’s orbital flight test, or OFT mission, during which the spacecraft will launch, autonomously dock at the International Space Station and then return to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert.
The launch is a crucial step in certifying to fly astronauts. Both Boeing and SpaceX -- with the Crew Dragon spacecraft -- have been working since 2014 toward NASA certification to carry humans as part of the Commercial Crew Program.
SpaceX could start launching NASA astronauts, no earlier than spring 2020. It completed a similar test flight of its crew capsule in March and has a flight-abort test scheduled in the first two weeks of 2020.
The first astronauts to fly on Starliner as part of the crewed test flight, NASA’s Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, along with NASA-turned-Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, will be watching Friday. After the first launch with astronauts, NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Josh Cassada will then launch on the same spacecraft used for the orbital test flight.
“Tomorrow is a huge milestone for us," Mann said less than 24 hours before launch. “It’s the next step prior to our launch on (the crewed flight test).”
Fincke said all the commercial crew astronauts will be anxiously watching the launch and spacecraft docking from mission control.
“This is an exciting time. This is what we live for,” Fincke said. “This is how we make aviation safe.”
Read on for details about the launch, including how to watch, the forecast and what this launch means for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.
How to watch, follow along
The launch at 6:36 a.m. will stream live on ClickOrlando.com and on News 6, as well as on NASA TV. Coverage of the countdown will begin around 5:30 a.m.
Brevard County reporter James Sparvero, space reporter Emilee Speck and anchor Justin Warmoth will provide updates before and after the liftoff. Follow them on Twitter: @News6James, @EMspeck and @News6Justin and check the News 6 WKMG Facebook page for updates.
Boeing, NASA and ULA regularly post countdown updates on social media.
Friday morning will be chilly by most Floridians’ standards. If you are traveling to the coast to watch the launch, bring a jacket and something warm to drink. Around 6 a.m., temperatures in Brevard County will be 64 to 66 degrees.
Air Force weather officials are currently predicting an 80% chance of favorable launch conditions. The primary concerns will be ground winds and cloud cover.
If the launch delays to Saturday, conditions deteriorate to 70% with possible rain, wind and cloud cover, according to the 45th Space Wing forecast.
Should liftoff delay further, there are launch opportunities through the end of the year, including Christmas Day.
Meet Starliner and Rosie the astronaut
For its first launch, Starliner won’t have a live crew but instead will carry about 600 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station and a mannequin named “Rosie the astronaut" that is outfitted with hundreds of sensors. Rosie will essentially be the astronauts’ test dummy.
A day ahead of liftoff, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke explained Rosie’s purpose and what the test fly show.
“She’s going to take the hit for us," Fincke said. "We’re going to look at the spacecraft and see if the Starliner can handle the rigors of launch, going from zero to 17,500 mph. Can it automatically fly in space and can it autonomously dock to the International Space Station?”
The capsule is designed to fly four astronauts and the equivalent of a fifth passenger in cargo, but before it does the spacecraft must show it can perform during launch, docking and landing.
Astronaut Suni Williams said the commercial crew astronauts are working on some new traditions, including a nickname for the spacecraft.
“It’s near and dear to Josh and my heart, this one that you’re seeing on the launch pad right now because, you know, it’s got to launch successfully and come back to Earth successfully,” said Williams, adding she and Cassada, along with two international astronauts, will be the next people to climb inside the spacecraft.
“This spacecraft means a lot to us and we’ll we’ll be looking at giving it a name before too long,” Williams said.
The Starliner will also deliver about 600 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, including food, clothing and Christmas presents for the six station residents.
Learn more about the spacecraft and its capabilities in the infographic below. Viewing on the News 6 mobile app? Click here to see the graphic.
The rocket up for the job
ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket was built in a special configuration for the Starliner OFT launch, according to ULA Chief Operations Office John Elbon. It’s the Atlas N22. The N stands for no fairing because the spacecraft flies unencapsulated in a nose cone. The first No. 2 stands for two solid side-strapped rocket boosters and the last No. 2 represents the duel-engine centaur stage.
The rocket is also equipped with an emergency-detection system to detect any issues with the rocket and communicate with Starliner to trigger an emergency abort should anything go wrong.
Scroll down to learn more about the special configuration. Viewing on the News 6 mobile app? Click here to see the graphic.
The future of human spaceflight and how we got here
American astronauts have not launched from Cape Canaveral since 2011, via a space shuttle, and next year could mark a historic first if Boeing and SpaceX begin launching NASA astronauts from U.S. soil.
Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut, said after piloting the final shuttle mission in 2011 that he thought his days of flying in space were over. Now Boeing’s test pilot, Ferguson recalled what the atmosphere at Kennedy Space Center was like after the shuttle program ended.
“It was very quiet here,” he said. “I could almost imagine tumbleweeds blowing across some of the streets. Now, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral is just vibrant. There are cars in every parking lot. There are voracious young men and women who want to learn about what we’re doing here.”
Ferguson recently visited Merritt Island High School, located a few miles from which the launch pad Starliner will blast off, and said he was impressed by the interest of young men and women.
“They’re engaged, they’re interested, they’re knowledgeable, they’re excited," Ferguson said. "Here are, you know, again right at the threshold of sending humans back from Kennedy Space Center into orbit, and they are fully engaged and aware, and we’re all looking forward to sort of impressing them and getting them into this wonderful space business that we have all made a career out of.”