Boeing Will Refly Starliner Uncrewed Test Flight

Boeing Will Refly Starliner Uncrewed Test Flight

Boeing announced today that it has decided to refly the uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew spacecraft.  The December 2019 Orbital Flight Test (OFT) encountered several anomalies that, among other things, prevented it from demonstrating it could dock with the International Space Station. The reflight is expected this fall.

Illustration of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. Credit: NASA.

Boeing is developing Starliner to take astronauts to and from ISS through NASA’s commercial crew program, a public-private partnership. Boeing owns and operates Starliner, which is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.  ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

NASA only purchases services, but Boeing must meet contractual requirements to demonstrate the system is safe.  That includes an uncrewed flight test and a crewed flight test to certify the system for operational use.

On December 20, Boeing launched Starliner on its uncrewed OFT.  The rocket worked perfectly, but the rest of the mission did not go as planned.

Software errors were responsible for the two highest profile anomalies.  First, the Mission Elapsed Timer on Starliner was off by 11 hours. Starliner is designed to separate from the Atlas V before attaining orbit and fire its own engines to reach orbit and finish the journey to the International Space Station (ISS).  Because of the timing error, when it separated the automated system thought the orbital insertion burn already had taken place.  A communications system problem prevented ground controllers from  immediately commanding the correct engine burn sequence. The spacecraft reached orbit, but only after consuming much more fuel than planned.  It did not have enough to rendezvous and dock with the ISS so did not complete that part of the test flight. Starliner remained in orbit for two days conducting other tests while engineers on the ground scoured the software to determine what went wrong and look for other problems. They found one just in time.  Another software error could have led to a catastrophic ending during reentry and landing.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft after safely landing at White Sands, NM, December 22, 2019. Screengrab.

Boeing and NASA have been investigating the anomalies ever since. It is Boeing’s spacecraft, but NASA decides whether or not to put its astronauts aboard. Boeing asked NASA to participate in a joint investigation and last month the head of NASA’s human exploration program, Doug Loverro, said no decision had been made on whether it would require Boeing to do the test over.

Today, Boeing said it decided to do the test again in order “to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer.”

Boeing took a $410 million charge against earnings in the 4th quarter of 2019 to cover the cost of the investigation and a  potential reflight.

Boeing has built two spaceflightworthy Starliners so far, Spacecraft 2 and 3, which are reusable and designed for up to 10 flights each.  (Spacecraft 1 was used for the Pad Abort Test.)  Spacecraft 2 was used for the December test and was slated for the first operational flight — Post Certification Mission-1 (PCM-1).  Spacecraft 3 was to be used for the Crew Flight Test (CFT), but now will make its first flight on this repeat of the OFT.  A Boeing spokespreson tells that decisions are pending on which spacecraft will be used for CFT and PCM-1.

A Boeing spokesperson also told that the company is “working with NASA to determine an agreeable schedule for the second OFT; while details are yet to be confirmed, we anticipate flying the mission in the Fall of 2020.”

In a blog post, NASA said this second OFT “does not relieve Boeing from completing all the actions determined from the joint” investigation and “NASA still intends to conduct the needed oversight to make sure those corrective actions are taken.”  The decision to fly a second OFT was Boeing’s. NASA said it would not speculate on what it would have required if Boeing had decided to proceed with the Crewed Flight Test instead.

Dates for the CFT and PCM are to be determined.  Two NASA astronauts, Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson (a retired NASA astronaut) are assigned to the CFT.  NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada will fly the PCM, with other crew members yet to be announced.

SpaceX is also developing a commercial crew space transportation system.  Crew Dragon will be launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.  That system completed its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019.  NASA and SpaceX are planning the crewed test flight, Demo-2, for mid-to-late May, although it would not be surprising if that slips a bit.  The most recent Falcon 9 launch suffered an engine failure. Although the other eight engines were sufficient to put its payload, 60 SpaceX Starlink communications satellites, into orbit, such a failure could pose a risk to a crewed flight.  A parachute test anomaly also is under investigation.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine just confirmed on Friday that whenever Demo-2 flies, it will be a 2-3 month mission instead of a short test flight. NASA and Boeing previously agreed that the Crewed Flight Test also would be a multi-month mission.  NASA has been relying on Russia to ferry crews to and from ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  Russia cut back production of its Soyuz spacecraft because Starliner and Crew Dragon were supposed to be ready by now.  Consequently, only one American and two Russians — half its usual complement — will be aboard the space station until the U.S. systems are flying.


Note: This article has been updated with the quotes from NASA and the information from Boeing about which Starliner spacecraft will be used for which flights.

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