DALLAS – NASA’s effort to resume flying American astronauts on American spacecraft — something that hasn’t happened since the Space Shuttle program 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 U.S. 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 on Friday morning. That’s when Boeing Co. 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.)
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner, scheduled to lift off at 6:36 a.m., sits atop an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed. It’s expected to dock with the ISS about 25 hours later and return early on Dec. 28 with a predawn landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Though flying unmanned this time, it can carry as many as seven passengers — four more than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that headed to the moon 50 years ago.
In 2014, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station. Since then, both companies have suffered delays that have put the commercial crew program more than two years behind schedule.
“For us to fly crew, we have to fly crew safely,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s manager for the commercial crew program, said Tuesday at a news conference. “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 Friday. 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 program. Two of the commercial planes crashed, killing 346 people.
Friday’s flight of the Starliner includes 595 pounds (270 kg) of cargo for the ISS crew — food, clothing, radiation-detection equipment and a few holiday presents, NASA officials said.
Also aboard will be a test mannequin named Rosie — 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 honor 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 program.
And even if NASA begins manned missions next year, the U.S. 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 $90 million per seat to fly astronauts, compared with only $55 million for SpaceX. The report also disclosed that NASA had paid Boeing, a major government defense contractor, an additional $287.2 million to adjust future launch schedules caused by delays in the commercial crew program.
Boeing rejected the report’s conclusion on the $90 million seat price, but didn’t offer an alternative cost figure. Musk took to Twitter last month to voice his outrage at the difference in payments.
On Thursday, NASA came to Boeing’s defense. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the government was paying Boeing more because the agency had previously paid SpaceX billions of dollars to develop its Dragon cargo vehicle. Bridenstine added that NASA hasn’t finished negotiating a final per-seat cost for Boeing Starliner flights to the ISS.
“Boeing has had a very different task than what SpaceX had,” Bridenstine said during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We spent billions of dollars helping SpaceX develop commercial resupply. That same Dragon was modified for human flight, so the cost to modify from commercial resupply to commercial crew was not as much as Boeing did, basically starting from scratch and trying to meet the same timeline.”
A spokesman for SpaceX declined to immediately comment on Bridenstine’s remarks.