What to Expect From the Boeing Starliner Launch

Just before sunrise on Friday, an Atlas 5 rocket will launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. On top of the rocket is Boeing’s Starliner capsule, designed for taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This mission will not have anyone aboard, but is designed as a test to check out the systems. Boeing and NASA are calling it O.F.T., short for orbital flight test.

The launch is scheduled for 6:36 a.m. Eastern time on Friday and NASA Television will broadcast coverage beginning at 5 a.m. The weather forecast gives an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions.

The launch is timed for the capsule to meet up with the International Space Station at 8:08 a.m. on Saturday. If the rocket is unable to launch then because of weather or a technical glitch, the backup launch days are Saturday and Monday.

There will be no astronauts aboard this flight of Starliner, but there will be a spacesuit-wearing figure sitting in one of the seats. A mannequin fitted with sensors will measure the forces that future astronauts will feel as they ascend to space. The mannequin is nicknamed Rosie, after the Rosie the Riveter, the illustrated character used to recruit women to work in factories during World War II.

In a shift from the space shuttles and NASA’s earlier human spaceflight programs, the Obama administration decided that the agency should hire commercial companies to take astronauts to and from the space station instead of building and operating its own spacecraft. The space agency had already taken this approach for launches of satellites and robotic missions, as well as for taking cargo to the space station.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX — Boeing for up to $4.3 billion for Starliner, SpaceX for up to $2.5 billion for Crew Dragon. The value of the contracts depends on how many missions are flown.

The capsule is also carrying 600 pounds of food and other supplies.

The two capsules have similar capabilities — each can seat up to seven people. The Starliner launches on top of an Atlas 5 rocket from the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX is using its own rocket, the Falcon 9, for launching the Crew Dragon.

SpaceX’s trips are cheaper. A report released in November by the NASA Inspector General estimated the per seat cost at about $55 million for SpaceX, and $90 million for Boeing. On Thursday, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, disputed that calculation, saying NASA has not negotiated those prices with Boeing or SpaceX.

NASA officials have been careful not to promise a launch date yet, saying that the schedule depends on how well Starliner performs during its flight test and how long it takes to ensure safety for its astronauts. (The losses of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2002 were both blamed in part on NASA officials pushing too hard to meet schedule deadlines.) But a successful launch on Friday could set up a crewed test flight in 2020 that was previously scheduled to occur before the end of this year.

When NASA awarded the commercial crew contracts in 2014, the hope was that the flights carrying astronauts would begin by the end of 2017. Both companies encountered technical hurdles, including problems with parachutes that the capsules deploy when they return to Earth.

SpaceX performed its crewless flight test of Crew Dragon in March. But in July, during a ground test of the abort engines on the same capsule, the Crew Dragon exploded. No one was injured, but that pushed back SpaceX’s schedule as the company figured out what happened and how to fix it. SpaceX is currently scheduled to perform its next flight without crew aboard — a test of the abort system, in which the rocket will be intentionally destroyed during launch — on Jan. 11.

Two other companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, have developed vehicles for short-hop space tourism trips. Those basically just go up and down like a big roller coaster and never accelerate to the speeds needed to reach orbit around Earth.

Virgin Galactic has completed multiple test flights with its crews aboard. It charges $250,000 for a seat, which will offer a few minutes of weightlessness; after years of delays, company officials are optimistically saying that commercial flights will begin in 2020.

This month, Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, conducted a 12th test flight of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft. But it has not yet put any people aboard, and has not yet said when it would start flying passengers or how much a ticket will cost.

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