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Boeing Starliner launch on Friday comes at critical time for company amid 737 Max controversy

Boeing’s Starliner space capsule is scheduled to make its first flight at 6:36 a.m. Friday from Cape Canaveral, and although no astronauts will be on board, it’s a must-succeed test for Boeing, besieged by questions over its 737 Max aircraft.

Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who now works for Boeing, fist-bumps Sunita Williams as fellow astronauts Nicole Mann and Bob Behnken look on. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Boeing has been under siege for months after two of its 737 Max aircraft plummeted from the sky killing 346 people. Members of Congress are accusing the industry stalwart of putting profits over safety. A whistleblower testified that schedule pressure created a “factory in chaos.”

Even Jim Chilton’s part of the company — the space division — was the subject of a searing watchdog report last month that found it had received hundreds of millions of dollars in “unnecessary” payments stemming from an unusually cozy relationship with NASA. For Boeing, the timing of the report couldn’t have been worse, coming as it was preparing to fly a key test of the Starliner space capsule designed to fly NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station.

That launch is now scheduled for 6:36 a.m. Friday from Cape Canaveral, and while no astronauts will be on board, the first launch of NASA’s new spacecraft has taken on a far greater importance for Boeing than just a test. It’s a shot at a bit of redemption.

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A successful launch would be a moment of triumph amid the tumult that has dogged the company the past year and the news this week that it will halt production on its troubled 737 Max airplane in January, a decision that could not only harm Boeing’s bottom line but also send shock waves through the economy.

Friday’s launch also comes as Boeing, long one of the major dominant players in space, now faces increased competition from a growing space industry, including from rivals such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

So in the face of the critical report from NASA’s inspector general last month, Chilton, a soft-spoken engineer who has risen through the ranks during a 35-year career at Boeing, fired off an email to his staff.

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He reminded the team that it was building on a heritage that stretched to the dawn of the Space Age: “We have been part of every NASA human spaceflight from — from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo to the space shuttle and [the International Space Station] — and we’re proud to continue that unwavering partnership.”

And he issued an emotional call to arms, both defending the company and its workforce while also pushing back against critics and competitors. The email, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, is part of a broader strategy inside Boeing to fight back aggressively that includes a radio ad playing in Washington touting the flight, saying it “is paving the way for the new age of space exploration.”

“Let’s not allow this inaccurate report or the critical media coverage it’s generating to become a distraction,” Chilton wrote. “Our Starliner teammates have put their hearts and souls into developing a spacecraft that we can all be proud of, and they need all the support they can get from our broader space and launch team in the countdown to first flight.”

If successful, the flight would be a critical step toward helping NASA restore human spaceflight from United States soil. Since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has been unable to fly people to space. Instead, it has needed to pay Russia as much as $84 million a seat to take its astronauts to the space station about 240 miles above Earth.

In 2014, NASA embarked on a risky experiment, awarding contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of human spaceflight. As part of what’s called the “commercial crew program,” NASA awarded Boeing $4.2 billion and SpaceX $2.6 billion to build capsules capable of flying at least four NASA astronauts.

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The first flights with people on board were originally scheduled for 2017, but both companies have suffered delays and setbacks. In March, SpaceX successfully launched its Dragon capsule to the space station and returned it successfully. But weeks later the spacecraft exploded during a test of its emergency abort engines, a problem the company says is now fixed.

Boeing also has had a host of problems — from a propellant leak last year to a problem with its parachute system during a test of its abort engine last month.

But it says it is on track, and now NASA hopes the launches with humans will happen sometime next year.

“I’m happy to announce we’re go for launch,” NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard told reporters last week.

At a news briefing on Tuesday, John Mulholland, Boeing’s commercial crew program manager, said “the spacecraft is in really good shape” and that the company was “looking forward to a short and successful mission.”

If all goes well Friday, the first flight with people, which is scheduled for sometime next year, will carry into space two NASA astronauts, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, as well as Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who now works for Boeing.

“We consider this a dress rehearsal for the first flights with crew members on board," said Pat Forrester, the chief of NASA’s astronaut office. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the office, as they’ve gone about their work, who hasn’t thought about Chris and Nicole and Mike.”