Boeing is positioned to start flying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA as soon as this year, but the Starliner spacecraft must complete an orbital flight test without crew. NASA and Boeing now have a new date set for when the OFT-2 mission will be conducted. If successful, Boeing’s Starliner will join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in transporting astronauts from the U.S. to the ISS for NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

Boeing will send its Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida as early as March 25. The mission was previously targeting later in the month, but NASA says a number of factors contributed to the earlier date:

The target launch date is enabled by an opening on the Eastern Range, the availability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, steady progress on hardware and software, and an International Space Station docking opportunity.

Boeing recently mated the spacecraft’s reusable crew module on its brand new service module inside the Starliner production factory at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Teams are working to complete outfitting of the vehicle’s interior before loading cargo and conducting final spacecraft checkouts.

NASA

ULA says the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center mission to launch the STP Satellite-6 spacecraft using an Atlas V rocket “has been delayed to enable the customer to evaluate the launch readiness” of the payload. This appears to be what cleared the way on the range for the earlier launch date for OFT-2 which will now be ULA’s first mission in 2021.

Boeing conducted the first orbital flight test with Starliner in December 2019 without successfully reaching the space station. Starliner failed to rendezvous with the ISS after reaching orbit during the uncrewed flight.

In April 2020, Boeing made the decision to reattempt its uncrewed orbital flight test with Starliner after a review revealed gaps in software testing that caused the failure in December. The cost for the second flight attempt is covered by Boeing.

Boeing has since hired a former SpaceX veteran to lead its software efforts.

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