NASA sets date for next Boeing Starliner launch
NASA and Boeing have set a target date for the second launch of the Starliner spacecraft, which was designed – along with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon – to return crewed launch capabilities to American soil.
Back in 2010 NASA launched the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), an initiative that sought to facilitate the creation of new human-rated spacecraft that would end America’s reliance on Russia’s ageing Soyuz capsules to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Rather than opting to construct the capsules themselves, the CCP subsidized commercial entities such as SpaceX, Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation to research, design and fabricate the spacecraft. In doing so, the agency hoped to create a fleet of reliable, and relatively affordable reusable spacecraft.
The Boeing Starliner, formerly known as the CST-100, is one of two human-rated capsules that is being developed under the CCP. Once fully operational, Starliner will be capable of transporting seven astronauts at a time to the ISS, and on paper at least, should be capable of being reused up to 10 times.
In order to be certified as human rated, spacecraft being developed under the auspices of the CCP have to be rigorously tested. This includes countless performance evaluations of the capsule’s parachutes, its software, vibration and heat testing, and a range of other examinations.
Prior to carrying its first human crew, the spacecraft must also undertake a number of orbital test flights, culminating in a rendezvous with the ISS.
On December 20, 2019, Starliner roared into the skies above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on its maiden mission to near-Earth orbit. However, the historic occasion, which was years of work and many millions of dollars in the making, was cut short by a series of issues. Starliner returned to Earth on December 22, having spent just two days in space.
An independent review later revealed that the failed mission resulted from a number of software malfunctions and communication issues that needed to be addressed prior to Starliner’s next launch.
On January 18 this year, it was announced that Starliner had finally completed the recertification process for its flight software. The next step will be a second mission to low-Earth orbit, during which it will once again test its hardware and software, as it attempts to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station.
NASA announced in a recent press release that the upcoming mission, referred to as Orbital Flight Test - 2 (OFT - 2), could launch as soon as Thursday, March 25.
Assuming that there are no further technical delays and that weather is favorable on the day, Starliner will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. If all goes well Boeing will be one vital step closer to achieving its goals under the Commercial Crew Program.
However, it is worth noting that Boeing is well behind its CCP rival, SpaceX, which launched its first crewed mission on May 30 last year, and in December launched with Crew Dragon once again, to bring new crewmembers to the ISS.