NASA's commercial crew program Boeing will run a key test today of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, a new spacecraft developed by the aerospace company to bring American astronauts to the International Space Station, beginning as early as next year. The Starliner will undergo a crucial and necessary launch pad abort test, wherein if all goes will it'll show exactly how it can use its on board engines to quickly move the spacecraft away from the launch vehicle prior to lift-off in the unlikely chance of an emergency. The test is set to begin at 9 AM ET (6 AM PT), and there is a three-hour window from that time in which the test can take place.
If all goes to plan, the Starliner, which is mounted aboard a sub-scale test stand in New Mexico at the White Sands Missile range for this test, should reach a height of 4,500 feet and move about 7,000 miles away from the launch site. The spacecraft's service module and base heat shield will separate from the crew-bearing spacecraft itself, and then the capsule will parachute back to earth, with airbags inflated to further mitigate any impact. The animation below shows how everything should proceed.
It's key that this test demonstrate the spacecraft's ability to propel itself away from the rocket even from a perfect stand-still, and also to do so while attaining enough orbit to get high enough to make use of its parachutes. Both Boeing and SpaceX are required by NASA to demonstrate successful pad abort processes ahead of launching any missions with actual astronauts on board.
Both commercial crew partners are now looking at early next year as the earliest possible flights for their spacecraft with people on board. NASA is working with Boeing and SpaceX to restore the ability to launch astronauts to the ISS aboard American launch craft launched from American soil, since it has relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport its personnel since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011.