As expected, the first major test flights for Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft have been delayed again, following an engine test mishap that occurred over a month ago. The crew capsule, known as the CST-100 Starliner, was scheduled to perform two major test flights to the International Space Station this year. But now, the test failure has forced Boeing to change its flight schedule, and it’s possible that both of those major flights will now occur in 2019.
Boeing is developing the Starliner as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, an initiative to send humans to the ISS on private US spacecraft. The vehicle is meant to carry seven passengers and travel to space on top of an Atlas V rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance. Before that vehicle is considered operational, NASA wants Boeing to conduct both an uncrewed and crewed flight test of the capsule to see if it’s ready for regular trips to the station.
According to the most recent timeline, the Starliner was scheduled to take flight for the first time without a crew in August, followed by a crewed launch in November. Boeing now expects the vehicle to do its uncrewed test flight either later this year or in early 2019, according to a press call with reporters this afternoon. Then the first crewed test will occur in mid-2019. Additionally, Boeing was going to do another type of test at the end of this summer to try out the Starliner’s pad abort system, a setup that is meant to keep future passengers safe in case something goes wrong on the launchpad. Embedded underneath the spacecraft are four engines that can ignite and propel the Starliner far away from a malfunctioning rocket. Testing out this system won’t happen until spring of 2019 now, after the uncrewed test flight.
Much of the delay seems to stem from a recent engine failure that occurred during a test in June. Boeing was conducting a test fire of the Starliner’s launch abort engines. Boeing says the engines ignited just fine. Yet during shutdown, several of the engine valves failed to close, leading to a propellant leak. There was no damage to the hardware being tested and no one was injured. Boeing says that it is conducting an investigation into what happened and is making changes.
“We have a dedicated team of both ourselves and the contractor working diligently on those corrective actions,” John Mulholland, the vice president and program manager for Starliner, said during the press call today. He said that Boeing will employ both design and operational changes to make sure those valves fully close.
Delays were expected for Boeing even before this failure occurred. Multiple reports from the Government Accountability Office predicted that the milestone flights for the Commercial Crew Program would fall behind, and that Boeing’s vehicle would not be certified to do regular trips to the ISS until February 2020. It’s unclear if this failure will change the GAO’s assessment of the Commercial Crew timeline. But Boeing claims that its test program is 80 percent complete at this point.
Meanwhile there’s still no update on where NASA’s other Commercial Crew partner, SpaceX, stands on its test flights. SpaceX is developing its own passenger spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, as part of the program, and it’s still scheduled to do its first uncrewed test flight in August with a crewed flight in December. However, the company hasn’t given any indication on a date, and given the GAO reports, that schedule is also expected to change.
When asked how Boeing’s schedule might compare to SpaceX’s, Mulholland said the company is really only focused on its own timeline. “I really have no visibility into SpaceX progress or the fidelity of the SpaceX schedule,” Mulholland said. “Our entire focus is… to make sure we do everything we can to ensure a safe vehicle and meeting the schedule parameters that I’ve laid out.”
We should get more answers very soon. NASA is announcing crew assignments for the first Commercial Crew flights this Friday, August 3rd. It’s possible that the space agency will give schedule updates for SpaceX’s flights as well.