Boeing’s crew capsule, named CST-100 Starliner, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral tomorrow morning atop an Atlas V rocket, which is manufactured by United Launch Alliance, the company’s joint venture with Lockheed Martin, another longtime NASA contractor.
No astronaut will be on board this time, just thousands of pounds of cargo and a sensor-studded mannequin named Rosie, after the World War II–era cultural icon of women workers. The rocket will carry Starliner beyond the edge of space, where the capsule will ignite its own engines to give itself an extra push into orbit. It will circle the planet before nearing the ISS and autonomously docking with the station on Saturday morning. A week later, Starliner will detach, streak through the atmosphere, and parachute down to the ground.
A successful mission would bring NASA closer to putting its astronauts on board—and provide Boeing, which has been dealing with the flaws of its 737 Max model, with some sorely needed good press.
Read: NASA hands Elon Musk a reality check
But spacecraft are extremely complicated creations, especially when they’re designed to carry people. That complexity is what keeps Steve Stich up at night.
“You have to get the systems put together right; you have to test them; you have to get the training right,” Stich told me in a recent interview at his office in NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Are we doing all that correctly? And are we missing something?”
Stich is the deputy manager of theNASA program to send astronauts to the ISS. NASA used to fly its own astronauts to orbit on the space shuttle, a system that got off the ground in the early 1980s, and Stich spent more than 20 years working on the program before it ended in 2011 over a mix of safety and budgetary troubles and shifting policies.
The Commercial Crew companies face a set of technical hurdles both new and old. Their propulsion systems are more complicated than those on the space shuttles, Stich says. There’s also a bit of a knowledge gap. NASA flew a winged spaceship for 30 years. SpaceX and Boeing have returned to the days of parachute touchdowns, which were used in Apollo. “It’s almost like a generation has kind of gone by, and now you have a new generation that’s relearning parachute technology,” Stich said.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX completed a mission similar to the one Boeing will attempt tomorrow. The company launched its own mannequin inside a capsule, named Crew Dragon, atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission went flawlessly, and NASA and SpaceX officials were ebullient. The image of the capsule splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, trailed by a trio peppermint-colored parachutes, made the prospect of a crewed launch in 2019 feasible, almost expected. “Unless something goes wrong, I would think that we’ll be flying hopefully this year, this summer,” Musk told reporters in March. The NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, agreed.