Boeing Starliner Test Flights Slip

Boeing Starliner Test Flights Slip

Boeing announced today that the uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle will slip to the end of 2018 or early 2019, and the crewed test flight will not take place until mid-2019.  Both had been scheduled to take place this year.

NASA is anxious for the Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew systems to begin operations because its access to Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft ends next year.  NASA has had to rely on Russia for taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.

President George W. Bush directed in 2004 that the space shuttle program end as soon as construction of  ISS was completed, then expected in 2010.  The primary reason was to make the money spent on the shuttle available to execute Bush’s plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020.

The ISS was designed to be resupplied with crews and cargo by the shuttle throughout its lifetime, however, so NASA needed to develop alternative systems. In 2006, it initiated public-private partnerships (PPPs) to build “commercial cargo” systems.  In PPPs, the government and the private sector share development costs and the government guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services. The idea is that other customers will emerge and the company will have a profitable business that does not rely exclusively on government contracts.  SpaceX’s Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK’s) Cygnus systems now routinely deliver cargo to ISS, but NASA remains the only customer.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he retained the Bush policy to terminate the shuttle program, which ultimately ended in 2011. The Obama Administration initiated a “commercial crew” program similar to commercial cargo with the goal of having two systems in operation by 2015, a four-year gap in the U.S. ability to launch people into space.

In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX were selected to build those systems. Boeing’s is the CST-100 Starliner launched on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX’s is the Crew Dragon launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

Although they are PPPs, the government provides the lion’s share of the funding.  Initially Congress did not provide as much money as NASA requested because of skepticism that the program would succeed.  Coupled with the technical challenges inherent in any human spaceflight development program, the systems have been repeatedly delayed and NASA’s dependence on Russia extended.

Each company must launch an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight prior to certification by NASA for the vehicles to begin operational flights.  For many months, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program office has been listing the launch dates for both companies’ uncrewed test flights as taking place this month, August 2018.  The crewed test flights were also supposed to take place this year — Boeing’s in November and SpaceX’s in December.

Witnesses at January 17, 2018 House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on commercial crew. L-R: Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), John Mulholland (Boeing), Hans Koenigsmann (SpaceX), Cristina Chaplain (GAO), Pat Sanders (ASAP). Screengrab

It has been widely expected that those dates would slip, however.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports, most recently in June, warning that the systems are not likely to be certified until late 2019 or 2020.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the status of the commercial crew program in January at which GAO’s Cristina Chaplain presented those results based on earlier analysis.

Today, John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program, made CST-100 Starliner’s delay official.  The uncrewed test flight will not take place before the end of 2018 or early 2019 and the crewed test flight in mid-2019.  He made the announcement via telecon. His remarks were widely reported and Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan confirmed the news via email to

The announcement comes two days before NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is set to reveal which NASA astronauts will fly on the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon test flights. Four NASA astronauts were selected in 2015 for training.  He will make the announcement at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Friday morning.  Nominally, two astronauts will be on each test flight.  For Crew Dragon, both will be NASA astronauts.  For CST-100 Starliner, there will be one from NASA and one from Boeing.  However, NASA indicated in April that it may “operationalize” the Boeing test flight and fly three, instead of two crew. That might mean two NASA astronauts plus Boeing’s (Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut).

SpaceX has not publicly revised its Crew Dragon schedule.

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