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NASA gives nod to next week’s crucial test flight of Starliner spacecraft

NASA has cleared Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for launch on Friday, July 30, in an uncrewed test mission that’s set to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

The critical Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission will be the spacecraft’s second launch following a failed effort to reach the ISS in December 2019.

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft ahead of launch.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft being prepared for launch on Friday, July 30. Boeing

The space agency announced its decision on Friday, July 23, following a day-long meeting at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The decision clears the way for the launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at the end of next week.

“After reviewing the team’s data and the readiness of all the parties, everybody said ‘go’ for the launch,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s director of spaceflight. “To me, this review was a reflection of the diligence and the passion of this Boeing and NASA team that really chose to learn and adapt and come back stronger for this uncrewed demonstration mission.”

Assuming the upcoming test flight goes according to plan, Starliner will dock with the space station the day after launch. As it’s a test mission, its stay at the orbiting laboratory 250 miles above Earth will be relatively short — just five days — before it returns to Earth for touchdown at the White Sands Space Harbor about 150 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Starliner’s maiden flight at the end of 2019 ended in failure when the spacecraft missed its targeted orbit, preventing it from taking the planned route to the ISS. However, the mission team managed to maintain control of the vehicle and it came down two days later in New Mexico.

A subsequent investigation uncovered a slew of issues with the Starliner’s systems, with Boeing and NASA working together over the last 18 months to put things right.

Summing up after Friday’s meeting, NASA said the OFT-2 mission will test “the end-to-end capabilities of Starliner from launch to docking, atmospheric re-entry, and a desert landing,” adding that the flight also will provide “valuable data that will help NASA certify Boeing’s crew transportation system to carry astronauts to and from the space station.” The effort is part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership that brings together NASA’s space experience with private companies’ new technology with the aim of boosting the availability of space travel.

SpaceX has already achieved success via the program with multiple flights of its Crew Dragon spacecraft transporting astronauts to and from the ISS since 2020. Boeing is hoping it will be doing the same with Starliner before too long.

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