Nasa’s effort to resume flying American astronauts on American spacecraft — something that hasn’t happened since the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011 — faces a major test this weekend.
Over the past decade, a lot of attention has been paid to billionaire space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. His company, SpaceX, has been launching payloads into low Earth orbit for years, replete with balletic booster landings and even a space going Tesla Roadster.
But as far as humans are concerned, the US has been dependent on its chief geopolitical rival — Russia — to provide billions of dollars worth of taxi rides to the International Space Station.
That arrangement could end soon if a test launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, goes as planned this morning.
That’s when Boeing hopes to fly its new spacecraft on an initial voyage to the ISS — a mission that could set the stage for human flight in 2020.
(SpaceX, which will also perform manned missions for Nasa, completed a successful test flight of its new Crew Dragon ship in March.)
It is expected to dock with the ISS about 25 hours later and return early on December 28 with a pre-dawn landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
In 2014, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts worth a combined $6.8bn (€6.1bn) to fly US astronauts to the space station.
Since then, both companies have suffered delays that have put the commercial crew programme more than two years behind schedule.
“For us to fly crew, we have to fly crew safely,” said Kathy Lueders, Nasa’s manager for the commercial crew programme.
It doesn’t make any sense for us to do it in a way that we’re not going to be comfortable.
Nasa has declined to set dates on manned missions, pending the outcome of test flights such as the one set for today.
For Boeing, a successful mission will bring some rare good news; the embattled company has been under fire since 2018 over its now-halted 737 Max programme.
Two of the commercial planes crashed, killing 346 people.
The flight of the Starliner includes 595 pounds of cargo for the ISS crew — food, clothing, radiation-detection equipment, and a few Christmas presents, Nasa officials said.
Also aboard will be a test mannequin named Rosi e—wearing a red polka dot bandana — in a nod to Rosie the Riveter, the iconic representation of women who built B-17 heavy bombers during World War II.
The device will record data on the type of forces and conditions astronauts can expect while riding the Starliner.
On its flight of the Crew Dragon, SpaceX carried Ripley, an anthropomorphic test device outfitted with sensors, named in honour of Sigourney Weaver’s character in the film “Alien”.
Still, because of the scheduling uncertainties, Nasa has begun talks with the Russian space agency about procuring two additional seats on Soyuz missions in fall 2020 and spring 2021, according to Joel Montalbano, deputy manager of the space station programme.
And even if Nasa begins manned missions next year, the US has said astronauts from both countries will still fly on Soyuz, Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, depending on ISS crew needs and which vehicle is set to launch.
Meanwhile, Nasa’s inspector general last month reported that the agency is paying Boeing an average of $90m per seat to fly astronauts, compared with only $55m for SpaceX.
The report also disclosed that Nasa had paid Boeing, a major government defence contractor, an additional $287.2m to adjust future launch schedules caused by delays in the commercial crew programme.
Boeing rejected the report’s conclusion on the $90m seat price but didn’t offer an alternative cost figure.
While Mr Musk took to Twitter last month to voice his outrage, SpaceX hasn’t responded to a request for comment.