A little while ago, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft blasted off atop a ULA Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral base in its Boe-OFT (Boeing Orbital Flight Test) mission. After about 15 minutes it successfully separated from the rocket’s last stage. After a little more than half an hour the first of a series of maneuvers for orbit insertion was schduled but a problem emerged that required that the possible options to be assessed to have the CST-100 Starliner go for a proper orbit insertion and on its way to carry out its mission. Boeing has control of the spacecraft, which is in a stable orbit, so it’s not in danger.
In September 2014 NASA announced that it had selected Boeing’s and SpaceX’s projects for the new phase of manned spacecraft development. The contract called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) included the completion of the spacecraft with the initial idea of starting crew transport in 2017. The delays kept on piling up and at this point if all goes well in the course of 2020 the first launches of astronauts on the new private spacecraft could begin.
The Atlas V rocket is in the version designated as N22, which indicates that it’s not equipped with a fairing to protect the spacecraft, which has a profile that is already aerodynamic, uses two side boosters, and the upper Centaur stage is equipped with two engines. This is the first launch in which they use on an Atlas V this version of the Centaur, which will be placed on a suborbital trajectory optimized for the launch of astronauts both for the comfort of the journey by exerting a lower force on them and their safety in case of a mission abort.
On board the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft there is a dummy in some ways similar to those used for car crash tests, equipped with sensors that will record the physical stresses it will be subjected to during its journey. Nicknamed “Rosie”, it sits in the crew cabin wearing a spacesuit like a real astronaut so that the stresses are what the human beings will have to endure during their standard missions.
The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven people but will probably end up carrying three or four at a time along with some cargoes. In the Boe-OFT mission, about 270 kg (about 600 pounds) of supplies for the International Space Station crew are on board, so it’s used as a cargo spacecraft. When it comes back to Earth, it will be transport samples and various scientific experiments.
For some years, the only spacecraft capable of carrying cargoes back from the Station was SpaceX’s Dragon, recently also in its Crew Dragon version in the test mission similar to the one started today by Boeing. Adding more spacecraft with this possibility will be a further advantage in conducting scientific experiments on the Station.
Tomorrow, around 13.27 UTC, the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft was scheduled to reach the International Space Station and dock directly to the International Docking Adapter (IDA) installed in August 2016. The off-nominal orbit insertion might force to modify that schedule.
Edit. The abnormal use of fuel makes it impossible for the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. NASA and Boeing are working on a return to Earth that could take place on Sunday.