CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The astronauts who will make the first trips on Boeing's new Starliner spacecraft couldn't be more excited about the future of commercial spaceflight and debut launch of an uncrewed Starliner tomorrow (Dec. 20).
With less than 24 hours until Boeing's first CST-100 Starliner astronaut taxi launches, the astronauts who will make both the first and following crewed missions to space aboard the craft joined NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a news conference at the launch countdown clock here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to discuss the launch and humankind's future in space.
Starliner is scheduled to launch on an Atlas V rocket at 6:36 a.m. EST (1136 GMT). You can watch the launch live here and on Space.com's homepage, courtesy of NASA, beginning at 5:30 a.m. EST (1030 GMT).
Tomorrow's launch, called the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), is an uncrewed mission that will serve as a dry run for the first crewed Starliner launch. That crewed mission, dubbed Crew Flight Test (CFT), will most likely take place sometime in 2020.
"How are we going to feel tomorrow when we see OFT launch? I think, in one word, really, overwhelmed — but in a good way, in really the best of ways," Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut who will fly on the first crewed Starliner mission, told Space.com at the news conference.
"I think as we get closer to launch, for personally me, my emotions are starting to get kind of pegged with this excitement and pride, stress and really amazement at what we're doing and what we're accomplishing," she said. "So tomorrow is a huge milestone for us, and it's the next step prior to our launch on CFT. So we are definitely looking forward to that."
Mike Fincke, a NASA astronaut who will fly on the CFT alongside Mann, shared similar emotions.
"We're excited," Fincke told the crowd at Kennedy Space Center. He noted that Starliner will launch without a human crew, but it will have an "anthropometric test device" — basically, a crash test dummy — dubbed Rosie on board. Rosie will be outfitted with sensors to collect data on aspects of the flight, like G-forces, Fincke said.
"She's going to take the hit for us, and we're going to look at the spacecraft and see if the Starliner can handle the rigors of launch," he added.
The astronauts also expressed their excitement about the continued development and growth of commercial spaceflight.
"As flight testers … this is a dream come true," Fincke said. "Very rarely does it come where you get a brand-new spacecraft to go look at and test. And we have three of them right now: Of course, we have Orion with the Artemis program; we have the Starliner, which we're here to talk about today; and SpaceX's Crew Dragon."
For Mann, the test flight is further proof that the space industry is reinventing itself.
"This is really the new era of spaceflight," Mann told Space.com. "It's opening up low Earth orbit; it's opening up space to not only just our government astronauts but now commercial astronauts and more people on Earth that want access to space."
Indeed, the mission is inspirational, she added.
"We're talking about technology development; we're talking about science," Mann said. "But were also talking about folks that can capture the amazement of space — so maybe teachers, maybe journalists, maybe artists that are able to gather everything that we see in space, the amazement of what were doing, and they're able to translate that to the people back on Earth."
Bridenstine also discussed how this "new era" of spaceflight presents new opportunities to move away from dependence on foreign rockets and launchpads.
"We're moving into a new era," he said. "We are going to, in fact, launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle, and we're going to do that in the first part of next year."
Moreover, the new era will present increased opportunities for not only NASA astronauts, but private citizens and space tourists, to fly to space.
"This time when we go, we're going to go with commercial partners," Brindenstine said. "NASA is not purchasing owning and operating the hardware. We're buying a service, the goal being that NASA wants to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace."
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