Boeing will fly Starliner spacecraft on second test flight without astronauts

Take 2 for astronaut capsule after December mishap, investigation

FILE - In this Dec. 22, 2019 file photo, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft jettisons its heat shield before it lands in White Sands, N.M., after an aborted test flight to the International Space Station. On Friday, Feb. 6, 2020, NASA said Boeing faces 61 safety corrective actions following the unsuccessful December test. (Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via AP) (Aubrey Gemignani, NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Months after Boeing’s astronaut spacecraft launched on its ill-fated first spaceflight, the private company said it will try again and repeat the same orbital test flight before flying NASA astronauts on board the CST-100 Starliner capsule.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft launched in December from Cape Canaveral on a ULA Atlas V rocket. The test flight was designed to prove the capsule’s ability to launch, dock at the International Space Station and return to Earth as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, however, due to several software bugs and a communication issue, the spacecraft was forced to return to Earth 48 hours after launch.

Last month, after an extensive investigation, Boeing and NASA officials said an independent review team made more than 60 corrective recommendations to Boeing and identified three specific issues that must be addressed before the spacecraft can fly again. The investigation revealed the spacecraft was almost lost twice during its first spaceflight.

Up until this week, NASA officials had declined to say if Boeing would need to repeat the test flight before flying humans.

“Quite frankly we don’t know,” NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Doug Loverro said on March 6 when asked about another uncrewed test flight. “I can’t even tell you what the schedule will be on that.”

On Monday, Boeing Co. said in a statement that it will repeat the orbital test flight. Boeing officials had previously stressed they were prepared to do so if asked by NASA and had set aside the capital to fund the spaceflight.

“The Boeing Company is honored to be a provider for the Commercial Crew mission. We are committed to the safety of the men and women who design, build and ultimately will fly on the Starliner just as we have on every crewed mission to space,” the statement read. “We have chosen to re-fly our Orbital Flight Test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system. Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer. We will then proceed to the tremendous responsibility and privilege of flying astronauts to the International Space Station.”

No timeline was given for Boeing’s second attempt.

Since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. has paid Russia to launch its astronauts to the ISS and return them home. NASA awarded multi-million dollar contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to design and build spacecraft to fly Americans from the Space Coast once again.

Even in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, NASA and both companies are working hard to returning human spaceflight from U.S. soil.

NASA and SpaceX are targeting the second half of May to launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the first crewed flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station and back. It will mark the first time Americans will launch from the U.S. in nearly a decade.