CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA managers said they are confident that Boeing is ready to complete the final test of its Starliner spacecraft after two years of delays before it can launch astronauts.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V is scheduled to liftoff on May 19 at 6:54 p.m. carrying Boeing's CST-100 Starliner to orbit. The spacecraft won't have astronauts on board. However, it will dock at the International Space Station to complete an orbital flight test.
The first attempt to complete the test in 2019 ended 48 hours after launch due to a computer glitch.
Another try in August 2021 was called off before launching when engineers discovered that valves on the spacecraft were sticking due to an issue caused by humidity and fuel. This week a report by Reuters revealed Boeing and the manufacturer of the valves, Aerojet Rocketdyne, are in dispute over the issue.
If the launch goes Thursday, the spacecraft will dock at the space station before 7 p.m. ET on May 20.
NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said he's looking forward to docking on May 20, which happens to be his birthday.
After a flight readiness review earlier this week, NASA officials said there are a few open work issues to close out but no significant issues.
"The hardware is really ready. It's great to see the team in place to go fly the flight," Stich said.
Despite missteps along the way, NASA managers are confident in the spacecraft and say it's essential to have a second spacecraft for astronauts. SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft was also awarded a NASA Commercial Crew Program contract and had been flying astronauts for NASA and its partners since 2020.
Both Boeing and SpaceX agreed to complete uncrewed flight tests to the ISS before flying humans. This is the final step before NASA astronauts are expected to launch in Starliner.
"The only way to get the final piece of data you need to fly a crew is to go fly the vehicle in the environment. And that includes flying it during the ascent, on orbit and then docking in proximity to ISS. And we're about to go do that," Stich said.
NASA's acting Chief Flight Director Emily Nelson said the flight would test Boeing's automated docking technology and confirm it works as planned.
Starliner's docking system called Vesta looks at the silhouette of the football-field length ISS for rendezvous to find the correct docking port.
"The space station is fairly large. We'd like for it to arrive at the correct port," Nelson said. "Once we can identify it's going to the right place. We'll do a couple of demonstrations once we get close enough, where the spacecraft will stop to demonstrate that if we tell it to stop, it will, in fact, stop. It'll automatically retreat some to demonstrate that we have that retreat capability, and then we'll press into the final rendezvous and docking."
After about a week at the ISS, the spacecraft will undock and land in New Mexico, completing the OFT-2. A complete review from launch to landing will be conducted before two NASA astronauts launch on a crewed flight test later this year.
A launch readiness review is scheduled to take place on May 17, where the 45th Weather Squadron launch officers will provide a weather briefing.