Following its launch from Cape Canaveral, currently scheduled for 6.36 am. EST on December 20, the Starliner will reach the ISS in about 24 hours. Credit: Boeing.

Just in time for Christmas, NASA and Boeing have announced that the latter’s Starliner spacecraft will launch on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Station on Friday, December 20 – and it’ll even have some presents for the astronauts on board.

According to Forbes, the historic mission, the first time Boeing’s Starliner vehicle will have launched to space, follows years of development and US$4.2 billion in funding as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. Already this year, in March, SpaceX launch an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle as part of the program.

Both Boeing and SpaceX are hoping to launch humans to the ISS for the first time in 2020 using these vehicles, which will be the first orbital human spaceflights from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

“[NASA’s Commercial Crew program] and our commercial industry partner [Boeing] held a Flight Readiness Review to prepare for the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the [space station] and back,” NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard tweeted. “We are go for launch on Friday!”

Following its launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, currently scheduled for 6.36 am. EST on December 20, the CST-100 Starliner will reach the ISS in about 24 hours. The vehicle, which is capable of carrying up to seven people per flight, will then dock with the station’s Harmony module.

The space station crew will open hatches and enter the Starliner spacecraft, retrieving cargo performing inspections during the ship’s week-long stay.

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It will remain attached to the ISS until Saturday, December 28, when it will then return to Earth.

It is scheduled to land on the ground at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on that Saturday morning, descending to Earth via parachute. There are a number of backup launch and landing dates, however, if the mission is delayed.

The goal of this mission is to prove that Starliner can successfully launch, dock, and return to Earth – vital steps to verifying it is safe for humans to travel on. It will carry some useful cargo with it, however, including a test dummy called “Rosie the Rocketeer,” along with some treats for the astronauts.

“[As] we approach the holidays, we will be bringing presents for the crew,” said John Mulholland, vice president of Boeing’s commercial crew program, in a media teleconference.

If the mission is a success, it will be all systems go towards launching humans to space at some point next year. Mulholland said that was likely to be in the “first part of 2020,” while SpaceX are also hoping to fly humans in early 2020 on their Crew Dragon vehicle.

“This uncrewed test flight is not just another contract milestone,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development program, reported SpaceFlight Now. “It’s just a phenomenal opportunity for us to learn the true performance of the spacecraft.”

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