Will Boeing need to repeat Starliner spacecraft test flight without astronauts? TBD, NASA says

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft near the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Image: Boeing/NASA) (WKMG 2019)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – In the first major update since Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft was forced to end its maiden spaceflight flight early, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it’s still too early to tell if Boeing will need to re-do the test flight before it can fly astronauts.

United Launch Alliance launched the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on an Atlas V rocket last month from Cape Canaveral, however, minutes after liftoff a computer timing error caused Starliner to miss its orbital insertion and the spacecraft was unable to catch up to the space station. Boeing brought Starliner back to Earth where it landed in New Mexico 48 hours later, instead of docking with the ISS.

Boeing and NASA are investigating “the mission elapsed timer anomaly and any other software issues.” Boeing will take corrective actions before the spacecraft will fly crew to the International Space Station, Bridenstine said in an update.

The investigation into the mishap is expected to last about two months.

If Starliner’s orbital test flight, or OFT, had gone as planned the spacecraft would have docked with the space station about 25 hours after liftoff, delivering some supplies to the astronauts living on board and then returned to Earth about a week later.

However, NASA now says that an uncrewed docking at the ISS was not necessarily required prior to the first Starliner human spaceflight. The space agency says Boeing proposed the uncrewed test flight “as a way to meet NASA’s mission and safety requirements for certification," which is why it is part of Boeing’s contract with NASA.

NASA is currently evaluating the Starliner’s flight data to determine if another uncrewed test flight is required. Bridenstine said the agency will make that decision in several weeks.

Bridenstine said, “although docking was planned, it may not have to be accomplished prior to the crew demonstration.”

To determine if a second uncrewed test flight is needed NASA will evaluate if it received enough data to validate Starliner’s overall performance, “including launch, on-orbit operations, guidance, navigation and control, docking/undocking to the space station, reentry and landing.”

“Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system’s full capabilities,” Bridenstine said.

NASA tapped SpaceX and Boeing to build and operate spacecraft to fly American astronauts. Both companies have faced delays as they work to certify their spacecraft to fly humans.

SpaceX completed an uncrewed test flight last spring with its Crew Dragon spacecraft. An in-flight abort test scheduled for the second half of January is among the final steps SpaceX has to take before Crew Dragon can be certified by NASA to carry astronauts.

The OFT Starliner spacecraft is currently en route from New Mexico back to Boeing’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center.