Boeing capsule placed on top of rocket for company's first astronaut launch

The test flight is expected to lift-off from a Florida spaceport on May 6

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Boeing is a step closer to launching humans into space after placing its Starliner CST-100 capsule on top of a rocket, with a blast-off scheduled from Florida on May 6 (May 7, UAE time).

It will carry experienced Nasa astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the International Space Station at 10.34pm Eastern (6.34am, UAE time) for a planned stay of up to two weeks.

If the mission is successful, it will help Boeing begin commercial operations and offer the US space agency a second "taxi" option to the orbiting laboratory, after SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

"The first CST-100 Starliner to fly astronauts rolled out of its factory early in the morning on Tuesday, April 16, with teammates and astronauts there to wish the spacecraft farewell," Boeing said in a statement.

"The spacecraft now sits atop an Atlas V rocket."

Boeing completed an uncrewed test flight in 2022 when a Starliner capsule docked at the ISS and returned to Earth successfully.

The launch came almost three years after a failed test flight in 2019 that foiled the spacecraft's ability to reach the station due to a software glitch.

The company is part of Nasa's Commercial Crew Programme (CCP), which means it was contracted to safely send and bring back astronauts for the space agency.

Nasa had to rely on Russia's Soyuz capsule from 2011 to 2020, after it shut down its Space Shuttle programme, so it launched the CCP to partner with American companies that can help send astronauts from US soil once again.

An evolving space race

Boeing has been trying to develop a commercial capsule for about a decade, with a launch that has been plagued with delays owing to technical problems.

Meanwhile, SpaceX started operating flights under the CCP in 2020, with a mission called Nasa/SpaceX Crew-1.

Since then, the company, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, has carried out seven more flights for Nasa, with several international astronauts who have also taken part in missions.

UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, and now the Minister of Youth, flew on the SpaceX Crew-6 flight last year, helping him to become the first Arab to go on an extended mission and to perform a spacewalk.

Even though Boeing is a few years behind SpaceX, a second ride to the space station would still be welcomed by Nasa, as it would increase access to the laboratory.

It would also reduce its dependency on a single spacecraft for missions, which would help in case one is grounded for technical reasons.

Starting commercial operations would also allow Boeing to carry out private missions to the space station.

Axiom Space, a Houston-based space infrastructure company, has been helping arrange trips to the station by selling seats on private missions.

Two Saudi astronauts, for example, launched on a private mission to the ISS aboard a SpaceX rocket last year after the Saudi Space Agency struck a deal with Axiom. Boeing could carry out similar deals.

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Updated: April 18, 2024, 11:04 AM