ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 19 (UPI) -- NASA and Boeing are nearing the scheduled Friday morning launch of the next-generation Starliner spacecraft for its first uncrewed test flight.
The capsule is scheduled for a predawn liftoff at 6:36 a.m. from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The Air Force predicts an 80 percent chance of good launch weather.
Boeing has staked its reputation in space technology on the flight, even as it faces serious problems in its passenger jet business, while NASA's ability to take astronauts to the International Space Station in 2020 also is on the line. SpaceX is simultaneously developing its Crew Dragon capsule, which is to have a flight abort test in January.
If all goes well Friday, Starliner is expected to carry a crew within a year.
"We're moving into a new era," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday at adjacent Kennedy Space Center. "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 shuttles."
Astronaut Chris Ferguson, who flew on the last shuttle mission in 2011, is one of the those scheduled to fly on Starliner. He also was involved in its design.
Other astronauts projected for future Starliner flights are Josh Cassada, Mike Fincke, Nicole Mann and Suni Williams.
"It's been a long time, it's been eight and a half years, far too long in my opinion," Ferguson said Thursday. "But here we are right on the threshold of getting ready to do it with not only one, but two companies."
"As we get closer to launch, personally for me, my emotions are starting to get pegged, with excitement, and pride, stress and really amazement," Mann added.
NASA has been buying seats in Russian Soyuz capsules since the shuttle's last flight, at a cost of up to $80 million. The last purchased seat is scheduled for April.
NASA is negotiating with Russia to purchase more seats, said Joel Montalbano, deputy manager of NASA's International Space Station program. Buying more seats is intended to prevent rushing Starliner or Crew Dragon into service, he said.
Alternate launch dates in case of a Starliner launch delay include the Christmas holiday.
"We're going to do everything we can, even working of the holiday break to make sure then mission is a success," said John Mulholland, program manager of Boeing's commercial crew program.
Boeing officials said the capsule will orbit the Earth for about 25 hours before docking at the International Space Station, and it is to remain there for a little over one week. On Dec. 28, the capsule is scheduled to make a four-hour journey back before landing in New Mexico.
"Along the way, we'll be doing a number of demonstrations ... checkouts to ensure all those systems are working appropriately," Mulholland said.
Bridenstine and five astronauts who spoke to the media Thursday emphasized that Starliner has many more safety features than Apollo capsules, the space shuttle or Soyuz capsules.
The capsule's launch abort test in November was a success, although one of three parachutes failed to open. Boeing said it has addressed and solved that issue.
Bridenstine said the Starliner and Crew Dragon are unique because they were designed by private companies, not by NASA.
He said the new spacecraft also will help usher in a new age that sees private astronauts flying, as well as more commercialization of low-Earth orbit.
"Experiments that don't result in commercialization ... that's not the way," Bridenstine said. He said NASA plans to focus more on lucrative activities that provide revenue, like biomedicine projects that benefit from micro-gravity, and the manufacture of fiber optics in space.