Boeing is to attempt the second uncrewed test flight of its new Starliner capsule to the International Space Station as it bids for more NASA contracts.
While the capsule has been successfully tested on the ground, orbital test flights for the CST-100 have faced several delays and software problems.
Boeing and NASA are aiming to use a resupply mission on 30 July to demonstrate that the spacecraft can launch, dock with the International Space Station, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and perform a desert landing safely.
Boeing’s first orbital test of Starliner in 2019 ended in failure when the capsule did not rendezvous with the ISS due to a software problem, although it successfully landed back on Earth two days later.
As a result of this failure, Boeing asked to attempt a second mission with NASA and will be paying the entire cost of the supply run – an estimated $410m (£297m). However, an earlier launch date in March was postponed.
The launch this July, if it does go ahead, will take place at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida – America’s primary launch site due to its proximity to the ocean and the speed boost rockets receive from the rotation of the Earth.
It follows a successful SpaceX launch back in May 2020 which saw astronauts travel into space from US soil for the first time since the space shuttle programme was retired.
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Both the SpaceX mission and Boeing’s test of the Starliner capsule are being undertaken as part of NASA’s commercial crew programme, enlisting private companies to enable the space agency to send astronauts to the ISS.
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Following the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, NASA has depended entirely on Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to send its astronauts to the ISS.
In addition to supplies and equipment, also travelling on the Starliner capsule will be a dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer, strapped in the commander’s seat with the aim of maintaining the spacecraft’s centre of gravity.
Rosie will be dressed in Boeing’s bright blue spacesuit, the same one astronauts will wear when they are flying on the Starliner.
NASA has already selected the first two groups of astronauts who will travel to the International Space Station on the Starliner when it is cleared for operation.
Mike Fincke, Nicole Mann and Barry “Butch” Wilmore are set to become the first astronauts to take part in the Crew Flight Test mission, essentially a demonstration proving Boeing’s ability to take astronauts to the ISS and bring them back safely.
After that test flight, astronauts Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada and Jeanette Epps will form the crew for Boeing’s first-ever operational crewed mission to the ISS.