A spacecraft built by Boeing launched a milestone test flight Friday that could be the last major step before humans are once again launched into orbit from US soil.
The Starliner capsule blasted into space riding atop an Atlas V rocket that took off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:36 am ET Friday.
Starliner will dock with the International Space Station over the weekend, mimicking the flight path it will take when it flies its first crewed mission. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday that he expects the vehicle will be ready for its first crewed mission in "the first part" of next year.
Aboard the capsule is a dummy nicknamed Rosie, after the iconic World War II figure Rosie the Riveter, which is outfitted with dozens of sensors to measure the G-forces astronauts will endure. NASA TV will show Starliner linking up with the space station at 8:27 am ET Saturday, and the craft is expected to spend one week in space before making the trek back home and landing in the desert of New Mexico.
After this mission, Boeing will work closely with NASA to review the data and both parties must deem the spacecraft ready before it can launch humans.
It's not exactly clear when Starliner will be ready, or even if it will be the first US spacecraft to launch NASA astronauts since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011.
Billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX is also racing for that distinction, and its Crew Dragon capsule completed its own uncrewed test flight earlier this year. But it still must pass another test of the capsule's emergency abort system before it's ready to fly. That mission is scheduled for no earlier than January 11.
Commercial Crew and the business of space
NASA allotted SpaceX $2.6 billion and Boeing $4.2 billion in 2014 for the Commercial Crew Program, the formal name of the program that will launch the Crew Dragon and Starliner. It was a new approach for the agency: While NASA has long worked with private sector contractors to build spacecraft, the organization does not typically hand over design, operation and testing duties to the companies.
"We're doing it in a way that's never been done before," Bridenstine said Thursday. "We're buying a service. The goal being that NASA wants to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace for human spaceflight in the future [and] we want to drive down costs, increase innovation and increase access to space in a way that we've never seen before."
NASA has long said it wants the private sector to take over operations at the ISS, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth, so that the space agency can focus on the more expensive and dangerous task of exploring deep space — including the moon and beyond.
Commercial Crew was modeled after a similar program that delivers uncrewed cargo missions to the International Space Station. SpaceX also won a contract under that program, alongside Northrop Grumman, and its Dragon capsule has been flying supplies to and from the space station for years. But the company has yet to fly humans.
Bridenstine said Thursday that Boeing received more money than SpaceX for Commercial Crew because SpaceX was already given billions of dollars under the cargo program for Dragon development, while Boeing essentially had to design Starliner from scratch.
Boeing has a much longer resume of human spaceflight chops: The company has worked on each of NASA's human spaceflight programs dating back to its first crewed missions nearly 60 years ago.
Commercial Crew: What's ahead
NASA originally predicted Starliner and Crew Dragon would be up and running by 2017, but both vehicles are years behind schedule.
The space agency, as well as federal lawmakers, are anxious to speed things up. Since 2011, the space agency has paid Russia an average of $55.4 million per seat for rides aboard the country's Soyuz spacecraft to ensure Americans had access to the space station.
Three astronauts have been selected to join Starliner's first crewed launch: NASA's Michael Fincke and Nicole Mann, as well as Chris Ferguson, a retired NASA astronaut who led the final 2011 Space Shuttle mission. Ferguson will fly as a commercial astronaut on behalf of Boeing.
Ferguson is the first non-government astronaut signed up to fly on Crew Dragon or Starliner. But NASA has suggested allowing people with various backgrounds to train and fly to space alongside members of its astronaut corps.
Ferguson said during Thursday's press conference that "opportunities abound" to fly astronauts from foreign space agencies and, one day, "customers who might come from any walk of life."
Those people may include "teachers, maybe journalists, maybe artists that are able to gather everything we see in space, the amazement of what we're doing, and they're able to translate that back to people on Earth," said Mann. "That's going to pay dividends."