Boeing’s astronaut capsule set for launch debut, joins SpaceX in race for crewed missions

Boeing's Starliner orbital launch debut is less than 24 hours away. (Richard Angle)

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket are scheduled to lift off on their orbital launch debut no earlier than (NET) 6:36 am ET (11:36 UTC), December 20th, a little more than nine months after SpaceX’s Crew Dragon completed a similar attempt.

Officially known as their Orbital Flight Test (OFT), Starliner and Atlas V rolled around half a mile from ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to its LC-41 launch pad, all part of the company’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) facilities.

The final roll-out aboard ULA’s Atlas V mobile launch platform is the last major integration operation ahead of Starliner’s uncrewed launch debut – a week-long visit to the International Space Station (ISS). According to ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno, things are looking good for the duo to lift off tomorrow morning.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft sits atop ULA’s Atlas V rocket at its LC-41 launch pad. (Richard Angle)

The 24 hours after roll-out will be filled with final checks of the rocket, spacecraft, and all other associated systems and teams. The crew access arm of SLC-41 was deployed and connected to the Starliner capsule to allow the astronaut close-out “Blue Team” to conduct final capsule preparations just as they would occur before a crewed launch. 3 hours before launch, the Blue Team will return to the capsule to complete final pressurization and leak checks and close out the capsule for flight.

The OFT will closely mirror the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s recent test flight – Demonstration-1 Mission, or Demo-1 – to the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2019. OFT will serve as the capsule’s proof of flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Starliner will launch aboard the ULA Atlas V and is expected to complete a round-trip flight to the ISS and return for landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico approximately 8 days following launch.

The test flight will also deliver cargo to the crew currently aboard the ISS including Christmas presents and commemorative items such as tree seeds in homage to the Apollo era and silver Snoopy pins described by Boeing as a “preeminent lifetime honor in human spaceflight.”

Both CCP capsules are intended to serve as an astronaut taxi service to the ISS taking over for NASA’s space shuttle services which concluded in 2011. Following the successful completion of Friday’s test flight – and SpaceX’s upcoming In-Flight Abort test of Crew Dragon – both CCP partners expect to support crewed spaceflight by the close of 2020.

The Atlas V and Boeing Starliner are ready to complete the second-ever, first for Starliner, flight to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The launch attempt is currently targeting Friday, December 20th at 6:36am EST/ 1136 GMT from Florida. NASA will begin a livestream of the launch approximately an hour ahead of launch Friday morning at 5:30am EST.

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Boeing’s astronaut capsule set for launch debut, joins SpaceX in race for crewed missions
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