Boeing’s new Starliner crew capsule is rocketing towards the International Space Station on its first test flight, a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.
The Starliner carried Christmas treats and presents for the six space station residents, hundreds of tree seeds similar to those that flew to the moon on Apollo 14, the original air travel ID card belonging to Boeing’s founder and a mannequin named Rosie in the commander’s seat.
The test dummy — named after a famous American figure from the Second World War — wore a red polka dot hair bandanna just like the original Rosie, and Boeing’s custom royal blue spacesuit.
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) December 20, 2019
“She’s pretty tough. She’s going to take the hit for us,” said Nasa’s Mike Fincke, one of three astronauts who will fly on the next Starliner.
As the astronauts watched from nearby control centres, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the capsule blasted off just before sunrise from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It is a one-day trip to the space station, putting the spacecraft on track for a docking on Saturday morning.
This is Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, Nasa’s other commercial crew provider that completed a similar demonstration last March. SpaceX has one last hurdle — a launch abort test — before carrying two Nasa astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.
The US needs competition like this, Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said on Thursday, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people.
“We’re moving into a new era,” he said.
The space agency handed over station deliveries to private businesses, first cargo and then crews, to focus on getting astronauts back to the moon and to Mars.
Commercial cargo ships took flight in 2012, starting with SpaceX. Crew capsules were more complicated to design and build, and parachute and other technical problems pushed the first launches from 2017 to now next year.
It has been nearly nine years since Nasa astronauts launched from the US. The last time was July 8 2011 when Atlantis — now on display at Kennedy Space Centre — made the final space shuttle flight.
Since then, Nasa astronauts have travelled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. The Soyuz rides have cost Nasa up to 86 million dollars (£66 million) each.
“We’re back with a vengeance now,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis said from Kennedy, where crowds gathered well before dawn.
Chris Ferguson commanded the last shuttle mission. Now a test pilot astronaut for Boeing and one of the Starliner’s key developers, he is assigned to the first Starliner crew with Mr Fincke and Nasa astronaut Nicole Mann. A successful Starliner demo could see them launching by summer.
“This is an incredibly unique opportunity,” Mr Ferguson said on the eve of launch.
Ms Mann juggled a mix of emotions: excitement, pride, stress and amazement.
“Really overwhelmed, but in a good way and really the best of ways,” she said.
Built to accommodate seven, the white capsule with black and blue trim will typically carry four or five people. It is 16.5ft tall with its attached service module and 15ft in diameter.
Every Starliner system will be tested during the eight-day mission, from the vibrations and stresses of liftoff to the December 28 touchdown at the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Parachutes and air bags will soften the capsule’s landing. Even the test dummy is packed with sensors.
Mr Bridenstine said he is “very comfortable” with Boeing, despite the prolonged grounding of the company’s 737 Max jets. The spacecraft and aircraft sides of the company are different, he noted.