Boeing had problems in the development of their spacecraft, the Starliner, when a propellant leak occurred during testing last year. But now those problems have been overcome and the craft is ready for its first test flight, according to the company.
Boeing was one of two private companies (along with SpaceX) that was contracted by NASA to ferry astronauts from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS). The company developed its CST-100 Starliner for the eventual task of shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS, but before any person can climb aboard the spacecraft, it needs to perform an unmanned test flight to check whether it can fly safely and dock with the orbiting ISS.
The ISS is ready to receive the Starliner, as astronauts there have already installed high definition cameras on the docking equipment so that visiting spacecraft can be accurately docked. Spacecraft have to be carefully aligned as they approach the ISS to make sure that they dock correctly without damaging any of the sensitive equipment nearby.
The Starliner hasn’t been tested in space yet, but engineers are confident that it will carry out its test flight safely. It has already been tested in successful parachute drop tests which were performed within the Earth’s atmosphere. The tests showed that the craft maintained its structure and successfully jettisoned its heat shield which protects the craft from the high temperatures experienced when the craft passes through the atmosphere.
If the test flight looks good and no problems arise, then the first crew of astronauts can board the Starliner to be taken to the ISS in August this year, Boeing spokesperson Maribeth Davis told Space.com. The mission will be named Orbital Flight Test and will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, site of famous historical launches like the Gemini missions and the Apollo program.
This will make the potential Starliner launch the first spacecraft launch from American soil in eight years, since the space shuttle program was brought to a close in 2011. The combined Boeing and SpaceX flights will also mark the first time that a private company has launched people to the space station.