NASA sets launch date for Starliner mission to space station

On Thursday, NASA invited media to the launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The news release included a launch date for the mission: December 17.

This uncrewed test flight will validate the in-flight capabilities of the Starliner vehicle and the Atlas V rocket that will launch it into orbit.

This mission is a precursor to human flights on Starliner, which NASA has paid Boeing to develop for astronaut transport to the International Space Station.

NASA’s invitation is notable because Boeing’s “Orbital Flight Test-1” notional launch date has slipped several times, and NASA generally only sends a request for press credentials when it is fairly confident in a launch date. A source said some uncertainty remains in the date, but confidence will increase if Boeing succeeds in moving a fueled Starliner from its facility at Kennedy Space Center to United Launch Alliance’s facility in mid-November. During this procedure, the spacecraft will be stacked atop an Atlas V rocket for final processing ahead of the launch.

Another key test will come during the agency’s Flight Readiness Review, a meeting during which the agency gives formal approval for the mission to proceed. As space reporter Jeff Foust noted on Twitter on Thursday, when NASA sent out the original media accreditation notice for SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission in late 2018, the launch was planned for January of this year. The mission actually launched in early March.

For most of the last decade, Boeing has been developing the Starliner capsule as one of two options for NASA to bring its crew into orbit. SpaceX has been developing its Crew Dragon spacecraft in parallel. SpaceX completed its uncrewed test flight in March but has since been grappling with two major technical issues related to its launch escape system and parachutes. Those issues must be resolved before NASA will approve a mission with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard.

NASA is eager to get one or both vehicles into operational missions. Although the agency had purchased rides on the Soyuz spacecraft through spring 2020, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday that NASA would look to buy at least one more seat later in 2020 in case there are ongoing problems with getting Starliner or Dragon flying crews.

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