United Launch Alliance and Boeing are still talking about getting into the astronaut-shuttling business in 2018 — or at least test-launching their rocket and crew capsule by then.
There’s budding skepticism among spaceflight insiders over that timeline, fueled in part by the recent suggestion by ULA half-owner Boeing that the first such mission wouldn’t come until the latter part of that year. ULA — co-founded by Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2006 — underscored its commitment to participating in the shuttling of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in its Oct. 13 announcement of design tweaks to ULA’s Atlas V rocket and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule.
But a careful parsing of the planned timeline falls short of promising an actual shuttle mission in 2018.
“The Atlas V with Starliner has a planned uncrewed flight test in 2018 with operational missions to follow,” the Centennial, Colo.-based company said.
The updated Atlas-Starliner configuration involves a so-called aeroskirt at the rear of the Starliner to extend the cylindrical surface of its service module.
“The collective team of NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance completed three wind tunnel tests in six months to investigate the aerodynamic stability of various configurations and to anchor our analytical predictions,” ULA vp human and commercial services Gary Wentz said. “Based on that information, we updated the configuration for the Atlas V Starliner integrated vehicle stack. This configuration is unique because it combines the Atlas V launch vehicle without a payload fairing with Boeing’s Starliner capsule, resulting in different aerodynamic interactions.”
The aeroskirt is a metallic structure designed to be jettisoned during flight. Fabrication of the aeroskirt is set to start soon at ULA’s factory in Decatur, Ala.
“We look forward to our continued partnership with Boeing and NASA to ensure mission success and safety for American astronauts flying from U.S. soil on the Atlas V Starliner,” Wentz said.
Assorted challenges previously prompted NASA to push back the resumption of astronaut shuttles from 2017 to 2018. Boeing and SpaceX hold the contracts for those missions, but the space agency will continue to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos to handle manned missions to the ISS in the meantime.