Boeing begins countdown to first spacecraft test flight

US aerospace giant sets December 17 date for an unmanned test flight as it plans commercial space tourism programme

Boeing technicians and engineers completing work on the CST-100 Starliner ahead of its unmanned orbital test flight Dec. 17. Deena Kamel/The National
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Boeing has set a date for a test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), a major milestone that moves the company closer to realising its ambitions for commercial space travel.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will undergo its first unpiloted orbital test flight on December 17, following a 90-second test of its launch pad failsafe system on November 4, Tony Castilleja, a human space flight systems engineer at Boeing Space, told reporters at the company's facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The space capsule will fly on the Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, taking six hours to reach the ISS. It will dock there for a few days before making a parachute-assisted landing in White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

"It takes five to six days so it will fly early- to mid-December and come back by the end of the year … It’s a very short mission to check out every engineering system that it is rated for human transport and capability," Mr Castilleja said.

Nasa has contracted Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX to ferry astronauts and cargo between Earth and the ISS. Nasa aims to end its reliance on Russia's Soyuz vehicle to transport crew. Both companies also have ambitions to commercialise their capsules and sell tickets to space to ultra-wealthy individuals in addition to their Nasa passengers.

Boeing is in the final stages of the Starliner's assembly, The National saw during a tour of the production facility in Florida in October, where engineers were working on the Orbital Flight Test Crew Module, finishing parachutes installation and putting on heat shields.

"It's fairytale-ish. It's exciting to be a part of all this, these folks are pioneering the future," Ramon Sanchez, senior operations leader for the commercial crew programme, said.

The Starliner is designed to accommodate up to seven astronauts, four of which are required by Nasa for its crew members. The other seats can be used in its early operational stages for commercial purposes such as space tourism or companies doing research in space, Mr Castilleja said.

"The fifth seat is for sale … we are already in a couple of discussions," he said, without providing details.

The ISS, an orbiting research laboratory where astronauts live and work in space, and the ISS National Laboratory are already providing parts of the space station for companies to conduct commercial research and product development.

"That’s the commercialisation opportunity that’s available to the future of human space flight," Mr Castilleja  said. "We really are opening the world to space."