On Thursday, space company Boeing will conduct a critical test flight of its new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner — a mission that will launch the gumdrop-shaped capsule to the International Space Station without people on board. It’s a flight that Boeing desperately needs to do well after a long journey to the launch pad that was marked by numerous failures, false starts and lengthy delays.
Starliner is essentially a space taxi. Designed to carry up to seven passengers, the capsule is intended to launch into orbit above an Atlas V rocket, automatically dock with the International Space Station or ISS, and eventually land back on Earth under a series of parachutes. Once deemed operational, Starliner will primarily transport NASA astronauts to and from the station to keep the ISS continuously manned. But before NASA gets comfortable getting people on board, the agency wants Starliner to prove it can safely perform all the key milestones of manned spaceflight.
This upcoming Starliner launch is a makeover of a makeover
That has proven to be a struggle for Boeing over the past three years. In fact, this upcoming Starliner launch is a makeover of a makeover. Boeing first attempted to launch an unmanned Starliner in 2019, but the spacecraft never reached the space station as intended. At the behest of NASA, the company agreed to give the test flight another chance, with a relaunch planned for the summer of last year. But after rolling out Starliner to the launch pad, Boeing returned the spacecraft to the factory to fix some valves that were misbehaving. It’s been nearly a year since that rollback, and the cumulative delays cost Boeing an additional $595 million†
Now Boeing is poised to try again, and the company hopes the third time round will be the charm. “The Boeing team is primed and ready,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, during a pre-flight press conference. “The partnership between NASA and Boeing is very strong and it is a reflection of all the hard work that has been put in.”
The reality is that Boeing’s ties to NASA have slowly eroded during Starliner’s development, and if this flight test fails, that partnership could be further jeopardized. And if Boeing fails, NASA may be left with just one launch provider — SpaceX — to get people to and from the ISS.
Boeing is working on Starliner since 2014 when NASA selected the company with SpaceX to develop space capsules that could transport astronauts to and from the space station. The two companies were finalists in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aimed to task private companies — not the government — with transporting people to low-Earth orbit. At the time, Boeing received an initial development contract worth $4.2 billion, while SpaceX received a contract worth $2.6 billion.
Those contract awards sparked a competition between SpaceX and Boeing to see which company could be the first to launch humans to the ISS. Throughout the development process, both SpaceX and Boeing seemed neck and neck, and Boeing would be ahead of the curve. The company was a favorite from the start, as it has been a contractor for the space agency for a long time. Boeing is the prime contractor for the International Space Station and is currently building NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System.
For Boeing, the Commercial Crew Program was a new way of doing business with NASA
But for Boeing, the Commercial Crew Program was a new way of doing business with NASA. Boeing has often worked with the space agency through cost-plus contracts: agreements where the company receives funding from the agency to cover all development costs. Once development is over, NASA will own the vehicle. At Commercial Crew, the contracts were a fixed price. NASA gave the companies a lump sum and the companies had to cover all development costs that exceeded the initial price. Along the way, Boeing struggled to meet its milestones, and an audit revealed that NASA agreed to pay the company an additional $287 million to address these schedule slips and “ensure the company continued to operate as a second provider of commercial crews.”
When it finally came time to fly Starliner, Boeing experienced nothing but snags. As part of its Commercial Crew agreement with NASA, Boeing would launch an unmanned version of the capsule and put it through its paces in an actual launch before people ride the vehicle. Boeing first attempted this in December 2019 with a mission called OFT, or Orbital Flight Test. While Starliner was successfully launched into space atop its Atlas V rocket, a software glitch caused the capsule to misfire its thrusters and end up in the wrong orbit. Mission controllers were unable to resolve the issue while skipping due to a communication blackout† In the end, Starliner was unable to reach the International Space Station, and Boeing had to bring the capsule home early after just two days in space.
Boeing and NASA revealed engineers had solved a second software problem mid-flight
Boeing and NASA later revealed that in-flight engineers had resolved a second software issue, one that could have caused “catastrophic spacecraft malfunction” during landing if left unchecked, according to a NASA security panel. After that, NASA and Boeing launched a full investigation into Boeing’s OFT issues and safety culture, and came up with: 80 recommendations Boeing should follow before flying again, such as performing more simulations and integrated software testing. Boeing also chose to rerun OFT – a new mission called OFT-2.
As Boeing prepared for the acquisition, SpaceX successfully launched its first human crew in May 2020 and has since completed five manned missions for NASA.
Boeing’s second attempt to launch Starliner was set to take place last August, a year and a half after the failed OFT mission. After claiming to have made all the changes NASA requested, the Starliner company rolled over to its Florida launch pad, ready for launch. But hours before the capsule was due to take off, Boeing stopped the countdown.
The company found that 13 of Starliner’s 24 valves — used to transport the oxidizer from the capsule — were stuck in the wrong position. Although Boeing was able to release some of the valves before the scheduled take-off time, a few still wouldn’t budge, and the company chose to roll the capsule back to the factory for further inspection. Diagnosing the problem took months and involved CT scans of the valves. The company believes that some of the oxidizer in the valves escaped, mixing with moisture from the humid Florida air, causing corrosion that prevented the valves from opening properly.
Boeing says it has solved the problem and is ready to fly again. The valves on this Starliner have been replaced and Boeing has made some extra repairs to ensure that the corrosion no longer occurs. A sealant has been added to prevent moisture from entering the valves and Boeing has done a dry flush to get any extra moisture out of the system.
Originally, Boeing indicated that the valves would remain the same design. “We have not redesigned the valve at this time,” said Michelle Parker, Boeing vice president and deputy general manager of space and launch, at a news conference. “These are the same valves.” However, after a report in Reuters detailed friction between Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdynethe valve manufacturer, about the cause of the stickiness, admitted Boeing that the company is considering a redesign of the valve.
“The short-term solution was not to have a redesigned valve,” Nappi said at a follow-up press conference. “It has always been that way. And the long-term solution, we looked at options for at least a month, if not more, and a valve redesign as an option is included.”
As of now, everything seems on track for Thursday’s launch. “We did one last cycle of all valves [on Monday] and they were all working nominally, so we’re in good shape,” Nappi said.
If Boeing can get Starliner into orbit this time, the most important thing the company needs to demonstrate is Starliner’s ability to dock automatically at the International Space Station. That is a crucial task that the capsule will have to perform during its manned space flights. “You can do so much on the ground, you can do so much analysis, and at some point it’s really ready to fly and test those systems,” Steve Stich, the program manager for the Commercial Crew Program at NASA, said during a press conference. If the launch is successful, Starliner will attempt to dock at the International Space Station on Friday afternoon and the hatch will open on Saturday morning. The capsule will remain attached to the ISS for about four to five days before disconnecting and returning to Earth, landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Edwards Air Force Base in California, or Willcox Playa in Arizona. .
“You can do so much on the ground”
All in all, Boeing really needs this mission to run smoothly. While the company is still one of NASA’s largest partners, the future with the space agency is a little dubious. Boeing’s work on NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, continues to be delayed after delay, and development costs have skyrocketed over the past decade. Boeing also lost a major multi-million dollar bid to build NASA’s new human lander to put humans on the moon. After a series of setbacks across the board, Boeing could use a Starliner win.
After launch is over, it’s time to get ready to board Starliner — and that could take some time, especially if Boeing decides to do a valve redesign. A NASA security panel also noted that a “huge amount of work needs to be done” between a successful OFT-2 flight and a test flight with people on board. “The panel is pleased there is no need to rush,” Dave West, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said at a meeting last week.
But in the end, all of Starliner’s major setbacks also put NASA in a bit of trouble. While SpaceX has proven to be highly capable of putting crews into orbit for the space agency, NASA does like redundancy. For the past ten years, NASA had only had the Russian Soyuz rocket to get its astronauts into orbit, which proved to be a tricky situation when a Soyuz failed during a launch, raising fears that NASA would not be able to send astronauts in any way. could fly to space. While NASA is still working on flying future astronauts on Russian Soyuz capsules, tensions between the US and Russia are making that arrangement somewhat tenuous. If Boeing’s Starliner is in play, NASA would have even more options, something the agency always likes.
“This mission is an important stepping stone for Boeing and NASA as we … enable an additional crew supplier for the International Space Station,” Joel Montalbano, program manager for the International Space Station NASA, said at a news conference. “And we consider this a milestone flight.”