On Thursday, aerospace company Boeing is set to 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 any people on board. Boeing needs this flight to succeed after an exhausting journey that saw many failures and delays along the way to launchpad.
Starliner is, in essence, a space taxi. Designed to carry up to seven passengers, the capsule is meant to launch to orbit on top of an Atlas V rocket, automatically dock with the International Space Station, or ISS, and then eventually land back on Earth again under a suite of parachutes. Starliner, once it is operational, will primarily be used to transport NASA astronauts between the stations to keep them manned. But before NASA feels comfortable putting people on board, the agency wants Starliner to prove it can safely perform all the major milestones of a human spaceflight mission.
Proving that has turned out to be a struggle for Boeing over the last three years. In fact, this upcoming Starliner launch is a do-over of a do-over. Boeing first attempted to launch an uncrewed Starliner in 2019, but the spacecraft never made it to the space station as intended. NASA asked Boeing to give the test flight another chance. A redo launch was planned for the summer last year. But after rolling out Starliner to the launchpad, Boeing wound up taking the spacecraft back to the factory to fix some valves that weren’t behaving properly. It’s been nearly a year since that rollback took place, and the cumulative delays have cost Boeing an extra $595 million.
Now, Boeing is poised to try again, and the company is hoping that the third time will be the charm. “The Boeing team is prepared and ready,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, said during a press conference ahead of the flight. “The NASA-Boeing partnership is really strong, and it’s a reflection of all the hard work that’s been done.”
The reality is Boeing’s ties to NASA have slowly eroded during Starliner’s development, and failing at this flight test could put that partnership in further jeopardy. If Boeing fails, NASA may be without a launch provider, SpaceX, to transport humans to the ISS.
Boeing’s been working on Starliner since 2014 when NASA selected the company, along with SpaceX, to develop space capsules that could carry astronauts to and from the space station. The two companies were the finalists in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aimed to put private companies — not the government — in charge of 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. These contract awards sparked a contest between SpaceX and Boeing in order to determine which company can launch human beings to the ISS. SpaceX and Boeing were at odds throughout the entire development process. However, Boeing was projected to have a slight advantage. Boeing was the preferred contractor because it is a trusted partner of the agency since the start. Boeing, which is currently building NASA’s next-generation rocket the Space Launch System, is the main contractor for the International Space Station.
But for Boeing, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program represented a completely new way to do business. 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. NASA will own the vehicle once development has finished. With Commercial Crew, the contracts were fixed-price. NASA gave the companies a lump sum, and the companies had to cover any development costs that went over the initial price. Along the way, Boeing struggled with meeting 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 as a second commercial crew provider.”
When it finally came time to fly Starliner, Boeing experienced nothing but snags. Boeing was required to send an uncrewed capsule into space and test it before humans can ride in the capsule. This is part of its Commercial Crew Agreement with NASA. Boeing first tried to do this back in December 2019 with a mission called OFT, or Orbital Flight Test. Starliner was successfully launched into space aboard its Atlas V rocket. However, Starliner’s software glitch caused the capsule to fire the thrusters wrongly and it ended up in the wrong orbit .. Mission controllers could not fix the issue during the misfire due to a communications blackout. Ultimately, Starliner wasn’t able to reach the International Space Station, and Boeing was forced to bring the capsule home early after just two days in space.
Later, Boeing and NASA revealed that engineers had actually fixed a second software issue mid-flight, one that could have caused a “catastrophic spacecraft failure” during landing if it hadn’t been remedied, according to a NASA safety panel. After that, NASA and Boeing launched a full investigation into the OFT issues and Boeing’s safety culture, coming up with 80 recommendations that Boeing should address before it flew again, such as conducting more simulations and integrated software testing. Boeing also opted to do a redo of OFT — a new mission called OFT-2.
As Boeing worked to prepare for its do-over, SpaceX successfully launched its first human crew in May 2020 and has conducted five crewed missions for NASA since.
Boeing’s second attempt at launching Starliner was supposed to happen last August, a year and a half after the botched OFT mission. The company claimed that it had made all the necessary changes to launch Starliner, and then they rolled the capsule to Florida’s launchpad. Boeing stopped the countdown hours before takeoff.
The company found that 13 of Starliner’s 24 valves — used to transport the capsule’s oxidizer propellant — were stuck in the wrong position. While Boeing was able to free some of the valves before the scheduled takeoff time, a few still wouldn’t budge, and the company opted to roll the capsule back to the factory for further inspection. The CT scans of all the valves were necessary to diagnose the problem. It took several months. The company believes that some of the oxidizer in the valves escaped, mingling with moisture from the humid Florida air, creating corrosion that prevented the valves from opening properly.
Boeing says it has fixed the problem and is ready to fly again. The valves on this Starliner have been replaced, and Boeing has included some extra fixes to ensure the corrosion doesn’t happen again. Boeing added a sealant to stop moisture entering the valves. A dry purge was also performed by Boeing to remove any excess moisture.
Originally, Boeing indicated that the valves would stay the same design. “We haven’t redesigned our valve at this time,” Michelle Parker (Boeing vice president, deputy general manager space and launch), stated during a press conference. “These are the same valves.” However, after a report in Reuters detailed friction between Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne, the manufacturer of the valves, over the cause of the stickiness, Boeing admitted that the company is considering a valve redesign. Nappi stated that the short-term solution was not to use a redesign valve during a subsequent press conference. That’s been true for a long time. And the long term solution, we’ve been looking at options for at least a month if not more, and it has included a valve redesign as an option.”
As of now, things appear to be on track for Thursday’s launch. Nappi stated that they had completed one final cycle with all valves (*) and all of them worked nominally.
If Boeing is able to get Starliner in the correct orbit, it must demonstrate that Starliner can automatically dock with International Space Station. This is a crucial task that the capsule must perform during its spaceflight missions. “You can do so much on the ground, you can do so much analysis and then at some point, it’s really ready to go 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 a success, Starliner will attempt to dock with the International Space Station on Friday afternoon, and its hatch will be opened on Saturday morning. The capsule will stay attached to the ISS for about four to five days before undocking and returning to Earth, landing in either White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Edwards Air Force Base in California, or Willcox Playa in Arizona.
All and all, Boeing really needs this mission to go well. Though the company is still one of NASA’s biggest partners, its future with the space agency is a bit dubious. Boeing’s work on NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, continues to suffer delay after delay, and its development costs have ballooned over the last decade. Boeing was also denied a multimillion dollar bid for NASA’s next-generation human lander. Boeing may be able to use the Starliner win after a series of setbacks. After the launch, it is time to prepare for people being onboard Starliner. This could be a long process, particularly if Boeing decides to redesign its valve. A NASA safety panel also noted that there is a “tremendous amount of work to accomplish” between a successful OFT-2 flight and a test flight with people on board. “The panel is pleased that from all indications there’s no sense of needing to rush,” Dave West, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said during a meeting last week.
Unfortunately, NASA is also in trouble if there are any significant Starliner failures. While SpaceX has proven to be very capable of putting crews into orbit for the space agency, NASA does like to have redundancy. NASA has used the Russian Soyuz rocket for its missions to the moon. This proved difficult when one Soyuz crashed during launch. It led to fears that NASA would not be able to send astronauts into space. While NASA is still working toward flying future astronauts on Russian Soyuz capsules, tensions between the US and Russia make that arrangement somewhat tenuous. NASA would love to have more options if Boeing’s Starliner was available.
” “This mission is an important stepping stone for Boeing, NASA, and as we enable…an additional crew provider for the International Space Station,” Joel Montalbano (the program manager for NASA’s International Space Station) stated during a press conference. “And we consider this a landmark flight.”
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