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Boeing, SpaceX press for commercial crew test flights this year

LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Boeing expects to carry out a pad test for its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle in early November, followed by an uncrewed orbital flight test in mid-December, a company executive said Oct. 8.

During a panel session of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs for Boeing's space exploration business unit, said the company was targeting a Dec. Launch Launch of Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral.

That mission, called the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) by Boeing, wants to send the Starliner to the International Space Station, docking with the station and remaining there for about a week before undocking and landing at one of several locations in the western United States. Mulholland said the ship was scheduled to land at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Boeing had planned to fly earlier this year, but announced in April it was delaying the launch, then Atlas 5 launch.

Since then, Mulholland said in an interview that the company had worked through some technical issues with the spacecraft that he described as "normal learning" with the spacecraft, and problems with the propulsion system in the spacecraft's service module last year.

The Starliner for OFT is in the final stages of assembly, with only a couple of major components, like a heat shield, yet to be added. Mulholland said the spacecraft should be assembled as soon as possible this weekend, after which there will be additional tests and fueling before it's transported to Space Launch Complex.

Mulholland was confident that, barring major problems, the company could make its scheduled launch in mid-December. "We've got a pretty decent chunk of margin to the 1

7th," he said. That said, that said, "That's it!" And "NASA for ISS operations."

Prior to the OFT, Boeing expects to carry out a Starliner pad abort test from White Sands. In that test, currently scheduled for Nov. 4, the Starliner wants to use its abort thrusters to launch off the ground, simulating the ability to escape a malfunctioning booster on the pad. Mulholland said that the capsule will fly about 1.5 kilometers high and a similar distance downrange, landing about 90 seconds after liftoff.

The preparations for the test are underway with the Starliner spacecraft completed and currently being fueled. Mulholland said Boeing had about a week of margin in his schedule leading up to the Nov. 4 test.

SpaceX prepares for in-flight abort

SpaceX, meanwhile, is gearing up for its own abort milestone, an in-flight

Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said both the Dragon Spacecraft and its Falcon 9 are now in Florida for final preparations. Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted Oct. He did not give an estimated launch date for the mission.

The spacecraft used for the in-flight abort test was originally built for the demo-2 crewed test flight, but moved to this test when the spacecraft originally Planned for the test in April for a static fire test. "The static-fire anomaly investigation is almost complete," Reed said, "with mitigations that have been identified and incorporated into the vehicles."

Another major issue for SpaceX has been development of parachutes. Reed said the company has completed more than 25 parachute tests. "We continue to do many more," he said. NASA and others in the "parachute community", results in the "most advanced parachutes" in the industry.

Musk, in another Oct. 8 tweet, said he spent last weekend with Airborne Systems, which is developing an advanced parachute called Mark 3. The new parachute, he wrote, "provides [the] the highest safety factor for astronauts."

The status of the crew will be discussed in the main topic of discussion for Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when Bridenstine visits SpaceX's headquarters Oct. 10. Bridenstine last month criticized Musk provided an update on the company's development of its next-generation Starship vehicle.

"We had some resources to speed this up, "Musk wrote of commercial crew work. He expected all the hardware needed for the demo-2 crewed test flight to be completed in Florida, by mid-December. Neither he nor NASA, though, did fly with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS.

At the ISPCS panel, both Mulholland and Reed said they would not fly crewed missions until they it is safe enough to do so. "We're going to do this together" with NASA, Reed said. "We'll fly when we know we can take Bob and Doug up and bring them home safely."

They are, though, aware of schedule pressures. "We need to maintain the International Space Station and its research capabilities," Mulholland said. "We need to get there, and we understand the necessity of getting there, but getting it right outweighs all that."

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