Boeing crew capsule test flight now scheduled for late summer

Boeing’s second spaceflight-rated CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is weighed before flight in this photo from January. Credit: Boeing/John Proferes

A second unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule — ordered after an initial demonstration mission fell short of reaching the International Space Station — is now scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in August or September, leaving little margin to conduct the spaceship’s first flight with astronauts before the end of the year.

Boeing and NASA officials confirmed the new schedule in recent statements, following a delay earlier the year from the test flight’s previous target launch date of April 2. Managers blamed that schedule slip on delays in performing software testing to prepare for the upcoming test flight, including difficulties stemming from a winter storm in February that impacted Boeing’s software lab in Houston.

The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is one of two commercial crew ships developed by U.S. industry under contract to NASA. SpaceX is NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, and that company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft began flying astronauts to the station last year.

Boeing’s Starliner, meanwhile, is still months away from it initially-unplanned second unpiloted test flight, and a crew test flight is expected at least several months after that.

Officials said the external considerations drove the schedule to launch Boeing’s second Starliner Orbital Flight Test, or OFT-2 mission, in the August/September timeframe.

The Starliner spacecraft uses the same space station docking ports as SpaceX’s Dragon crew and cargo ships. One of those ports is currently taken by a Crew Dragon capsule, and both ports will be occupied for a few days later this month with the handover of one Crew Dragon mission to the next.

SpaceX’s next Dragon cargo mission is scheduled to launch June 3 and will spend about a month-and-a-half docked with the space station to deliver fresh supplies, experiments, and a new pair of solar arrays. That precludes a Starliner docking before the second half of July.

The operational crew and cargo missions get priority over test flights in the space station’s schedule.

NASA and Boeing officials also have to find a window in United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launch schedule at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Unlike SpaceX, which launches Crew Dragon missions on its own Falcon 9 rockets, Boeing contracted with ULA to boost Starliner crew capsules into orbit.

ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but it operates as an independent company and has other customers. The U.S. Space Force currently has payloads scheduled to launch on three Atlas 5 missions in May, June, and August, carrying a new billion-dollar military missile warning satellite, a menagerie of tech demo experiments, and two space surveillance payloads.

Boeing previously had an early September launch slot booked with ULA for the Starliner’s Crew Flight Test — the capsule’s first demonstration mission with astronauts — when the OFT-2 mission was set for launch earlier this year. That launch slot is now available for the OFT-2 mission, and officials aren’t ruling out moving up the OFT-2 launch to August if one of the Space Force delays one of its missions.

The Atlas 5 launch pad will be tied up in late September through much of October with preparations to launch NASA’s robotic Lucy spacecraft on a marathon trip through the solar system to study asteroids. Lucy has a 23-day planetary launch window opening Oct. 16, and NASA will give the asteroid probe priority over the agency’s other missions.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said last week the Starliner spacecraft assigned to the OFT-2 mission is in “good shape” as it undergoes preparations in a facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“It’s almost ready for launch,” Stich said.

In a statement, Boeing said it will be “mission ready” in May in case an opening arises in the Atlas 5 launch schedule.

“The Starliner team has completed all work on the OFT-2 vehicle except for activity to be conducted closer to launch, such as loading cargo and fueling the spacecraft,” Boeing said. “The team also has submitted all verification and validation paperwork to NASA and is completing all Independent Review Team recommended actions including those that were not mandatory ahead of OFT-2.”

Boeing is taking more time to complete software testing on the Starliner spacecraft while officials wait for an opening in the space station schedule and ULA’s launch manifest, according to Stich. Boeing said in a statement it expects to complete software simulations, including end-to-end confidence and integration testing, before the end of April and will provide the results to NASA reviewers.

An Atlas 5 rocket lifts off with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on the OFT-1 mission in December 2019. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Investigators blamed a software error for the OFT-1 mission’s failure to dock with the space station in 2019. A mission timer was wrongly programmed, causing the spacecraft to think it was in a different mission phase when it separated from its Atlas 5 rocket after an otherwise-successful liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

The error caused the Starliner capsule to burn more propellant than expected, consuming the fuel it needed to maneuver toward the space station. Mission managers elected to end the mission early, and the spacecraft landed in New Mexico.

Assuming the OFT-2 mission gets off the pad in late summer, Stich said the Starliner’s Crew Flight Test could take off “toward the end of the calendar year.”

The Crew Flight Test will carry NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, Mike Fincke, and Nicole Mann to the space station. They will fly on the same reusable Starliner spacecraft that launched and landed in December 2019 on Boeing’s first Orbital Flight Test, while the OFT-2 mission will fly on an unused vehicle.

Boeing said its teams are preparing for the “shortest turnaround time possible” between the OFT-2 mission and the Crew Flight Test. Wilmore, Fincke, and Mann recently suited up and climbed aboard the spacecraft set to fly the OFT-2 mission for life support and communications systems checkouts.

Once Boeing accomplishes the two remaining Starliner test flights, NASA will certify the capsule for regular crew rotation missions to the space station, just as the agency did for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon last year.

NASA has nearly $7 billion in contracts with Boeing and SpaceX covering the development of the two commercial crew spaceships, and six operational crew rotation flights by each company.

With Boeing’s delays, SpaceX is likely to have launched four Crew Dragon missions with NASA astronauts — a test flight and three operational launches — before the Starliner flies with people for the first time.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said the agency originally planned to alternate commercial crew missions between Boeing and SpaceX.

“The plan right now is to alternate — SpaceX, Boeing, SpaceX, Boeing — however, the first Boeing crew flight is delayed, and we’re going to most likely … have four crew flights with SpaceX before the crew test flight with Boeing,” Jurczyk said Tuesday. “So we may have to relook at that, but we haven’t gotten around to talking about that yet.”

NASA will also soon start considering how and when to procure more commercial crew missions to meet the space station’s requirements beyond 2024, he said. But those talks are still to come.

“We really haven’t talked in detail about how we’re going to move forward beyond the current contracts and commitments,” Jurczyk said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.