First Operational Boeing Starliner Flight Not Until December 2021

First Operational Boeing Starliner Flight Not Until December 2021

NASA just added one more astronaut, Jeannette Epps, to the crew of the first operational flight of Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew system. But the agency has now revealed that flight will not take place until December 2021. Boeing’s competitor, SpaceX, is gearing up for its first operational mission 8 weeks from now, but Boeing will not reach that milestone for another 16 months.

Boeing and SpaceX are developing commercial crew space transportation systems to ferry crews to and from the ISS through Public-Private Partnerships with NASA. The companies own the vehicles — Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon — and can offer services to anyone, but to fly astronauts for NASA they must meet a series of contractual milestones to demonstrate the systems are sufficiently safe.

The ISS has been permanently occupied by crews rotating on 4-6 month “expeditions” for almost 20 years and operations are expected to continue for years to come. NASA has had to rely on Russia to transport crews since the U.S. space shuttle was terminated in 2011. The commercial crew systems are restoring America’s ability to launch people into orbit itself.

Two key milestones in developing the commercial crew systems are an uncrewed flight test and a crewed flight test to the ISS.  After that, NASA will certify them for routine, operational missions.

SpaceX completed its uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, in March 2019. The crewed flight test, Demo-2, just  finished. NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launched on May 30, docked with the ISS on May 31, and spent about two months aboard the ISS before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2. The certification review is underway and the first operational SpaceX mission, Crew-1, is scheduled for October 23.

Boeing’s uncrewed test, Orbital Flight Test (OFT), was launched on December 20, 2019, but was only partly successful.  It reached orbit and landed safely two days later, but software errors prevented it from getting to the ISS and the landing could have been catastrophic if a different software error had not been discovered and fixed in the nick of time.

A joint Boeing-NASA Independent Review Team (IRT) made 61 recommendations on how to fix the software problems and other recommendations on a separate communications problem, a total of 80 actions in all. In April, Boeing decided to refly the OFT to demonstrate the problems are fixed.  NASA officials have been saying for months they expect the OFT reflight, OFT-2, by the end of the year and the crewed test flight in the spring of 2021.

In a blog post August 28, NASA said Boeing has implemented about 75 percent of the 80 proposed actions and revealed somewhat more explicit dates: OFT-2 in December 2020;  Crew Flight Test (CFT) in June 2021; and the first operational flight, Starliner-1, in “late December 2021.” As usual, NASA refers to all of those as “no earlier than” dates.

That means a total of two years between the first uncrewed flight test and the first operational mission: 12 months between OFT-1 and OFT-2, six months between OFT-2 and CFT, and another six between CFT and Starliner-1.  SpaceX took 17 months: 14 months between Demo-1 and Demo-2, experiencing its own anomalies (on the ground rather than in space) in between, and three months between the end of Demo-2 and Crew-1.

The Public-Private Partnerships are fixed-price contracts. Boeing and SpaceX were awarded $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively in 2014.

Boeing took a $410 million pre-tax charge against earnings for the 4th quarter of 2019 to cover the cost of a second OFT in case a reflight was needed.

Though called fixed price, the value can be adjusted under certain circumstances. In November 2019, for example, NASA’s Inspector General (IG) reported that NASA paid Boeing an additional $287.2 million for four of the six operational flights NASA promised to buy as part of the deal. The IG concluded NASA overpaid $187 million for those flights. The agency and Boeing disagreed with that finding.

The IG also calculated NASA will be paying Boeing significantly more per seat than SpaceX:  $90 million versus $55 million. Russia has been charging NASA about $83 million per seat on Soyuz.

NASA plans to fly four people on each SpaceX and Boeing operational flight, but fewer on the test flights. SpaceX’s Demo-2 had two. Boeing’s CFT will have three: NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing’s Chris Ferguson (a former NASA astronaut).

Three astronauts who will fly Boeing’s Crew Flight Test (CFT), L-R:  Nicole Mann (NASA), Mike Fincke (NASA), and Chris Ferguson (Boeing). Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Three NASA astronauts have been assigned so far to Starliner 1, the first operational mission: Suni Williams, Josh Cassada, and Epps. A fourth presumably will be added later, perhaps from one of the ISS partner countries.

NASA is responsible for providing transportation not only for its own astronauts, but those from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and Canada under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the multinational facility. The IGA was negotiated when NASA planned to use the space shuttle throughout the ISS’s lifetime. Three NASA astronauts and one from JAXA will fly on SpaceX’s Crew-1 operational mission.

NASA also is planning to fly Russian cosmonauts on the U.S. systems and continue to fly its astronauts on Soyuz to ensure the crews are cross-trained on all the vehicles that will be docked at the ISS.  It expects those to be accomplished on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

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