The historic maiden flight of the Starliner spacecraft has been launched aboard an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft is expected to rendezvous and begin docking procedures with the International Space Station (ISS) at 13:27 UTC tomorrow.
Boeing’s Starliner Orbital Flight Test was launched aboard the “mission-unique” Atlas V N22 from the Cape’s Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:36 UTC. The rocket is expected to deliver the Starliner spacecraft into a 98-nautical mile sub-orbital trajectory. Following separation from the rocket’s upper stage, the spacecraft’s engines will be fired carrying it into its designated orbit and onto its rendezvous with the ISS.
The Starliner Orbital Flight Test is expected to serve as a dress rehearsal for the first crewed mission aboard the spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “We are bridging history as we prepare to launch astronauts again and the Orbital Flight Test is the first step in this process,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was conceived almost a decade ago following the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The conclusion of the long-running crewed space program left the United States without a way to transport its astronauts to the ISS from US soil. NASA was, as a result, forced to turn to Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, an alternative that costs the agency $86 million a seat (as of 2019).
Commercial Crew envisioned a future in which NASA did not have to take on the burden of developing its own crew-capable spacecraft. It would instead purchase seats aboard locally developed commercial launch systems. Following several rounds of funding, SpaceX and Boeing were awarded contracts to supply crewed commercial launch services to NASA in 2014.
The maiden Commercial Crew flight was initially expected to be launched in 2017. However, both SpaceX and Boeing suffered a number of setbacks that caused several years of delays. With the launch of the Starliner Orbital Flight Test, both SpaceX and Boeing have now completed their respective uncrewed flight tests with the first crewed flights to follow next year.