Boeing Co. plans to launch a test flight to the International Space Station on Dec. 17, the first voyage of the company’s CST-100 Starliner and a milestone in NASA’s plan to end U.S. dependence on Russia for crewed missions.
The December trip will follow a pad abort test for the Starliner on Nov. 4 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Boeing Vice President John Mulholland said Wednesday at a space conference. White Sands will also serve as the landing site when the Starliner returns from the space station.
The test flight marks a key step in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s commercial crew program, which calls for Boeing and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to transport astronauts. Since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA has been forced to purchase seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz vehicles to ferry crews to and from the space station.
In the December test flight, the Starliner will fly aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and dock at the the station for several days. Boeing’s plan to accomplish its first demonstration mission earlier this year was delayed by technical issues and a busy government launch schedule at Cape Canaveral over the summer.
Boeing and SpaceX are also exploring ways to sell space flights to wealthy tourists and others to supplement their NASA passengers. In March, SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station and docked for six days before returning to earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is visiting SpaceX on Thursday to discuss progress on the company’s work for the space agency.
On Sept. 27 -- the day before Musk introduced a new vehicle called Starship designed to go to the moon and Mars -- Bridenstine said on Twitter that NASA’s commercial crew program “is years behind schedule.” The agency expects to see “the same level of enthusiasm” for SpaceX’s taxpayer-funded projects as for the company’s other plans, Bridenstine said.
The NASA chief recently refuted Musk’s assertion that SpaceX would be ready to fly crews in three to four months. Bridenstine cited design changes to the Crew Dragon’s launch-abort system and remaining certification issues with the company’s parachutes.
“This is a discussion that we need to agree on between NASA and SpaceX,” Bridenstine said in an interview with The Atlantic published Oct. 1. “So I don’t want to preempt SpaceX and what their timeline is, but certainly ‘three to four months’ I don’t think is realistic.”
SpaceX has delivered more than 90 per cent of the Crew Dragon systems that NASA must certify before a crewed flight, said Benjamin Reed, who manages commercial crew development for the company. He and Boeing’s Mulholland spoke on a panel at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed in April when an explosion occurred during an engine test fire at Cape Canaveral. That mishap further delayed the company’s work.