CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA (REUTERS) – Boeing’s new Starliner capsule was set for launch on Thursday (May 19) on a do-over uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station, aiming to deliver the company a much-needed success after two years of delays and costly engineering setbacks.
The gumdrop-shaped CST-100 Starliner was scheduled for liftoff at 6.54pm EDT (2254 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, carried atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA).
ULA said on Wednesday evening forecasts called for a 70 per cent chance of favourable weather conditions for an on-time launch.
If all goes as planned, the capsule will arrive at the space station about 24 hours later and dock with the research outpost orbiting some 400km above Earth at 7.10pm EDT on Friday.
The Boeing craft is to spend four to five days attached to the space station before undocking and flying back to Earth, with a parachute landing cushioned by airbags on the desert floor of White Sands, New Mexico.
A successful mission will move the long-delayed Starliner a major step closer to providing Nasa with a second reliable means of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the US space agency has had to rely solely on the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules flown by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.
Payload & model passenger
The Starliner will not be flying to orbit empty. The capsule will carry a research mannequin to collect data on crew cabin conditions during the journey, plus 226kg of cargo for delivery to the space station’s crew – three NASA astronauts, a European Space Agency astronaut from Italy and three Russian cosmonauts.
Two of the US astronauts will be tasked with boarding the capsule during Starliner’s stay to take measurements of its interior environment and unload the supplies.
Thursday’s launch marks a repeat of a 2019 test mission that failed to achieve a successful rendezvous with the space station because of a flight software malfunction.
Subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub an attempt to launch the capsule last summer.
The spacecraft remained grounded for nine more months while the two companies sparred over what caused its fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them, as reported by Reuters last week.