Boeing to Refly Automated Starliner Flight Test

Starliner OFT-1 capsule after landing at White Sands Missile Range. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Boeing will refly an automated mission of its Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year after the near catastrophic loss of one of the crew vehicle in December.

“We have chosen to refly our Orbital Flight Test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system,” the company said in a statement. “Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer. 

“We will then proceed to the tremendous responsibility and privilege of flying astronauts to the International Space Station,” the company added.

The Washington Post reports the flight will likely take place in October or November. The schedule will in all likelihood push a crewed Starliner flight test to ISS into 2021.

The first Starliner flight nearly failed twice during its flight at the end of last year. Soon after launch on Dec. 20, a combination of software error and communications problem resulted in the vehicle not reaching its intended orbit and being unable to rendezvous and dock with the space station.

After the near miss, engineers began a search for other software errors. They discovered a bug that could have caused the crew capsule to collide with the service module after separation prior to reentry. A collision could have caused the capsule to burn up in the atmosphere.

Controllers uploaded a software fix. The vehicle landed safely at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico after completing an abbreviated two-day flight in Earth orbit. NASA and Boeing said the hardware performed largely as expected.

A subsequent investigation found 49 gaps in software testing where errors might have been found. A joint review team composed of NASA and Boeing officials recommended 61 corrective actions that needed to be taken.

Boeing has taken a $420 million charge against earnings to cover the cost of the investigation and additional flight test.

Boeing is one of two companies developing a vehicle to take crews to the space station. SpaceX is scheduled to conduct its first crewed test of the Crew Dragon vehicle in May. The company conducted an automated mission to ISS last year.

The two-person crew is scheduled to stay aboard the orbiting laboratory for about three months. After a review of the flight performance, SpaceX will launch a four-person crew to the station later this year.

Starliner is one more embarrassment for the reeling aerospace giant. Boeing has been reeling from the grounding of its 737 Max airliner after two fatal crashes that resulted from design and software problems.

The company reported a large annual loss for 2019. It has also shutdown aircraft production in the United States due to the coronavirus pandemic as air travel has slowed to crawl around the world.

It’s not clear if work on the Starliner will be slowed or stopped due to the coronavirus crisis.

In its statement, Boeing said the decision to re-fly the mission was based on safety concerns.

The Boeing Company is honored to be a provider for the Commercial Crew mission. We are committed to the safety of the men and women who design, build and ultimately will fly on the Starliner just as we have on every crewed mission to space,” the company said.