Boeing’s Commercial Crew Test Flights Delayed Again

Boeing’s Commercial Crew Test Flights Delayed Again

Boeing and NASA announced another delay to the uncrewed and crewed test flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew system today.  The uncrewed test flight now will not take place until at least August.  The crewed test flight will be in “late 2019.”  The agency also said the crewed test flight, whenever it occurs, will be for an “extended mission,” though the duration has not yet been determined.

Boeing and SpaceX won contracts from NASA in 2014 to develop commercial crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA has not been able to transport anyone to or from the ISS since the space shuttle system was terminated in 2011.  It pays Russia for crew transportation services.

Boeing and SpaceX each must conduct an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight as steps toward certification of the systems for operational missions.

The Boeing test flight “planning dates” have been delayed repeatedly.  Most recently, in February, they were listed as no-earlier-than (NET) April 2019 for the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) and NET August 2019 for the Crew Flight Test (CFT).  In between, Boeing will conduct a Pad Abort Test to demonstrate that the Starliner crew capsule can safely eject from its Atlas V rocket if anything goes wrong on the launch pad.

NASA said the August date for OFT is a “working date and is to be confirmed.” It blamed the OFT delay on “limited launch opportunities” in April and May and the need for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch a national security satellite in June.  ULA provides the Atlas V rockets.  Chris Gebhardt at, a website that diligently covers the launch vehicle business (and is not affiliated with NASA), expressed surprise at that explanation, pointing out that it takes months to get a rocket and payload ready for launch. If until now OFT actually had been planned for April, “ULA would have had to start stacking the Atlas V for the OFT mission back in February.”  He concludes the “delay is not due to ULA but due to Boeing and Starliner schedules.”

NASA also said the “late 2019” date for the CFT is “to be confirmed closer to that timeframe.”

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft that will fly the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test at the Boeing Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Boeing

Whenever it does launch, the CFT will be an “extended mission,” though its duration has not yet been determined.   NASA’s contract with Russia for crew transportation flights is nearing its end, although NASA is planning to purchase two more seats for flights in 2020 as a hedge against delays like this.

Still, the agency is anxious to resume launching astronauts itself instead of remaining dependent on Russia.  Although the CFT was initially planned as a short demonstration mission, NASA and Boeing agreed last year on the option to extend it from two weeks to as many as six months and to have three astronauts instead of two aboard.  It will carry two NASA astronauts (Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke) and a Boeing astronaut, Chris Ferguson.  Ferguson was a NASA astronaut who flew three space shuttle missions before joining Boeing.  In essence, the test flight could become part of the routine 4-6 month ISS crew rotation schedule.

Although SpaceX’s schedule also slipped many times over the years, it finally successfully conducted its uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon system, Demo-1, last month.  It did its Pad Abort Test 4 years ago. The Crew Dragon abort system is designed to operate all the way to orbit and the company will conduct an uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test before the crewed test flight. Their planning dates are June for the abort test and July for the crewed test flight, Demo-2.  NASA said today those dates will be reevaluated “in the next couple of weeks.”

In an emailed statement, a SpaceX spokesperson said “SpaceX is on track for a test of Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort capabilities in June and hardware readiness for Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission to the Space Station in July.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon arriving at the International Space Station, March 3, 2019, on its Demo-1 uncrewed flight test. Screengrab from NASA TV.

Note:  This article has been updated.


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