October 28, 2021

SPACE MIRROR

Race to the Galaxies starts here

Boeing plans second Starliner test flight in December or January[

4 min read

Boeing said Tuesday it is “making excellent progress” toward launching a second unpiloted test flight of its Starliner crew capsule to the International Space Station by the end of this year or in early January, setting the stage for the first Starliner demonstration mission with astronauts in mid-2021.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule rolls out to the launch pad Dec. 18, 2019, on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing said Tuesday it is “making excellent progress” toward launching a second unpiloted test flight of its Starliner crew capsule to the International Space Station by the end of this year or in early January, setting the stage for the first Starliner demonstration mission with astronauts in mid-2021.

The upcoming test flight is the second launch of a Starliner capsule into orbit after a first Orbital Flight Test was cut short in December 2019 due to a software error that caused the spacecraft to consume too much propellant soon after arriving in orbit. The high-than-expected fuel usage prevented the Starliner spacecraft from docking with the International Space Station.

Working under contract with NASA, Boeing is preparing for a second unpiloted Starliner test flight to validate corrections to the spacecraft’s software and prove out the ship’s ability to dock with the station. Officials decided to add a second unpiloted test flight earlier this year before moving on to the Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, which will carry Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann to the space station.

Boeing and NASA officials aimed to launch the Crew Flight Test by mid-2020 if the Starliner spacecraft completed a successful Orbital Flight Test in December 2019. In a statement Tuesday, Boeing said the Crew Flight Test is now expected in the summer of 2021.

“We are making excellent progress toward launching our second uncrewed flight test, Orbital Flight Test-2, by the end of this year or in early January, pending the completion of upcoming milestones on both the software development and test hardware production efforts,” Boeing said. “After a successful OFT-2, Boeing and NASA will fly Starliner’s first crewed mission, the Crew Flight Test, in the summer of 2021, with the first post-certification mission, Starliner-1, tentatively scheduled for the following winter.”

Industry sources said NASA and Boeing managers have recently discussed possible launch dates in December or early January for the OFT-2 mission.

The Starliner spacecraft is designed to lift off on top of United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. At the end of each mission, the Starliner returns to Earth under parachutes for an airbag-cushioned landing in the Western United States.

Despite the software issues encountered on the first Orbital Flight Test last year, the Starliner capsule safely landed in New Mexico. Boeing plans to fly the reusable capsule again on the Crew Flight Test with Ferguson, Fincke and Mann, while a different spaceship is assigned to the OFT-2 mission.

Assuming the OFT-2 and Crew Flight Test missions go well, NASA will certify the Starliner spacecraft to begin regular crew rotation flights to the space station.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Josh Cassada were assigned to the first “post-certification” Starliner flight in 2018. NASA announced Tuesday that astronaut Jeanette Epps will join Williams and Cassada on the mission.

NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps participates in a 2017 news conference in Star City, Russia. Credit: Andrey Shelepin/Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

The mission will be the third spaceflight for Williams, and the first for Cassada and Epps, who were selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013 and 2009, respectively. Epps will become the first Black woman to be part of a long-term space station crew.

A fourth crew member — likely from one of NASA’s international partners — is expected to be assigned to the Williams-led Starliner crew.

“The Boeing team is honored that NASA assigned astronaut Dr. Jeanette Epps to the crew of Starliner-1, Boeing’s first operational mission to the International Space Station,” Boeing said in a statement. “Jeanette will be a part of an important and history-making flight, and we’re excited to welcome her to the Starliner team. Jeanette’s crewmates, Suni Williams and Josh Cassada, are regulars at our Florida facilities and are training in Houston. We’re looking forward to getting to know her just as well as we progress toward this flight.”

While astronauts train for future Starliner missions, Boeing and NASA engineers are working to address 80 recommendations issued by an independent review team charged to probe software issues, a communications problem, and management oversight shortfalls in oversight that contributed to the problems on last year’s test flight.

NASA in 2014 selected Boeing and SpaceX to develop and fly commercial crew capsules, awarding multibillion-dollar contracts to each company for the Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Employing a new public-private partnership contracting scheme, the commercial crew program was established to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ferry ships after the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract to build, test and fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the Elon Musk-led company completed its first Crew Dragon test flight with astronauts Aug. 2, capping a 64-day mission to the space station with NASA space fliers Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

NASA plans to formally certify the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the coming weeks, ahead of the first “post-certification” Crew Dragon launch in October with a four-person crew to kick off a long-duration, six-month expedition on the space station.

But Boeing, which received a $4.2 billion NASA contract in 2014, has fallen behind SpaceX in the commercial crew program. NASA wants both companies to provide regular crew transportation services to and from the space station, giving the space agency two independent U.S.-owned systems to deliver astronauts to low Earth orbit for the first time.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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