NASA astronauts will soon have not one but three spacecraft in operation if Boeing’s Starliner test flight goes well, which is a far cry from where the U.S. space program was less than 10 years ago, when it began relying on Russia to carry American astronauts to space.
Boeing’s CST-Starliner spacecraft is the other half of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program plan, utilizing spacecraft from private companies to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Starliner’s uncrewed orbital test flight, launching soon, will pave the way for NASA to have two commercial spacecraft to carry its astronauts into low-Earth orbit. The OFT-2 mission is a repeat for Boeing after a 2019 test flight ended without docking at the ISS. The company will try again, and Boeing managers say this time, they are ready.
Last year, NASA’s other commercial partner, SpaceX, began flying astronauts, and has a fourth crewed flight planned for this fall.
NASA Astronaut Raja Chari will be one of four crew members on that mission launching from Kennedy Space Center in October. Currently, astronauts train specifically for the vehicle they fly on: Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, but it’s still early days for the program.
“I think in the years to come, though, it won’t be uncommon to see someone fly on both, you know, potentially fly one mission on a Crew Dragon, the next mission, not a Starliner,” Chari said. “So, I think there will definitely be within the (astronaut) office, some commonality and the ability to do both vehicles.”
And that’s just the International Space Station. NASA astronauts are also training to return to the moon in the agency’s Space Launch System, or SLS rocket, with the Orion spacecraft under the new Artemis program named for the moon goddess and twin sister of Apollo.
“It’s a good problem, to have four different vehicles to be training on -- complicated, but it’s really cool,” Chari said, also referring to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “A really cool problem, kind of unique in the history of spaceflight, to have that many vehicles all flying and (in) development at once.”
Orion is just one part of the Artemis moon return; NASA will utilize commercial partners again to fly its astronauts to and from the moon’s surface.
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SpaceX was awarded the first human moon landing system contract for its reusable Starship spaceship, however, that contract is still in dispute after two other potential contractors, Blue Origin and Dynetics, submitted bid protests of the award. The Government Accountability Office was set to make a decision on that case by Aug. 4.
Either way, astronauts will need to try to land on the moon again in a whole new vehicle. NASA Astronaut Doug Wheelock, a veteran space flyer with space shuttle Soyuz, is already working on that training plan. He is the chair of the test panel for the lunar lander project.
“We are building and designing and training our crews on the lander and how to how to safely land on the lunar surface again,” Wheelock said.
Wheelock said the first Boeing Starliner crewed flight and the Artemis-1 launch, the first flight of the SLS and Orion around the moon, are neck and neck for what happens first. NASA said it is still targeting the end of the year to launch SLS. The rocket is undergoing assembly at Kennedy Space Center.
“The crewed flight test vehicle for the Boeing Starliner and the Artemis-1 mission are, kind of, they’re in a horse race right now to see who goes first. So, they’ll be coming within the next year. We’ll see both of those vehicles launching,” Wheelock said.
If Boeing can pull off a flawless OFT-2 mission, it’s up to NASA to certify the spacecraft to fly humans. Both Boeing and NASA managers appeared very optimistic ahead of the launch that everything would go right this time.
Chari and Wheelock said they are most excited to see Starliner dock at the ISS for the first time. During the first orbital flight test, Starliner launched and landed, but did not dock to the ISS. Like Crew Dragon, docking is fully automated.
“It’s a finely choreographed dance in space,” Wheelock said. “So when you think about it, both of those vehicles are traveling at 5 miles per second ... and we’re going to try to match them up so gracefully that they end up doing this finally choreographed dance in space until they dock ... which is monumental in the way of technology and guidance, systems navigation, control of spacecraft and things like that.”
SpaceX and Boeing’s successes have implications for America’s return to the moon, as well.
“The commercial crew program was to basically energize the U.S. industrial base to take over low-Earth orbit and, essentially trying to privatize it, and allow them (NASA) to work on exploration and going beyond the Earth to the moon and Mars,” Chari said. “And so, the more we can allow private industry to handle low-Earth obit, that opens us up to do that.”
The lessons learned from working with commercial partners and developing budgets transfers to Artemis, Chari said. NASA has already awarded contracts to private companies to launch robotic missions to the moon beginning next year.
With the return of astronaut launches from Florida’s Space Coast and the approaching moon program milestones, the excitement around space is back. Wheelock said the Artemis program is opening new doors for the next generation to experience spaceflight, as NASA plans to land the first woman on the moon in three years.
“We’re hoping it’s creating that renaissance,” Wheelock said. “I can actually feel it, but I mean, I live in this world, but even people I talked to just in the communities around me, you can feel this sort of like, renaissance of (a) feeling, it’s like, ‘Space exploration is cool, and maybe one day, I’ll get a chance to travel this space as well.’”
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