Boeing plans to launch a second unflown test flight of its CST-100 Starliner ferry after software problems prevented a rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station last December and briefly threatened the survival of the spacecraft, company officials said on Monday.
A review of the December flight localized the causes of the problems and the steps required to resolve them. No new issues were found, but NASA managers said no decision had yet been made as to whether a return flight might be required.
Monday’s announcement said Boeing had “decided to rerun our orbital flight test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system.”
“If we fly another flight without a crew, we can reach all flight test destinations and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer,” the company said. “We will then take on the enormous responsibility and privilege of flying astronauts to the International Space Station.”
A Boeing spokeswoman said the capsule, which was originally intended for the first piloted Starliner test flight, will be used for the non-flown return flight. She said Boeing was “working with NASA to set an acceptable schedule for the second OFT.”
While details have yet to be worked out, she said in an email: “We expect to fly the mission in the fall of 2020.” This seems to rule out a piloted Starliner flight in 2020, but no decisions about subsequent launch destinations have been announced.
Boeing and SpaceX are both building piloted astronaut ferries for NASA under commercial contracts worth up to $ 6.8 billion. The goal is to end the agency’s sole dependence on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry US crews to and from the International Space Station.
SpaceX performed a successful test flight without pilots of the Crew Dragon spacecraft last year and is preparing for a second test flight to take place with two NASA astronauts on board in late May.
If this flight goes well, a second operational Crew Dragon mission with four astronauts on board could be ready by the end of July.
Boeing had hoped to launch a crew this year as well – but during the OFT mission in December, a fatal software error coupled with communication outages prevented a planned rendezvous and docking with the space station.
Another software mistake could have caused a catastrophic reentry failure if the capsule had not been caught in time.
Douglas Loverro, director of space at NASA headquarters, told reporters in March The incidents have been classified as a “high-visibility close call”, a formal term that initiates an additional review by the government. At this point it was too early to say whether a second test flight was necessary.
Boeing previously told investors that a $ 410 million charge on pre-tax earnings was largely required to cover the potential cost of another test flight.
“It’s not that complicated for us,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president at Boeing Space and Launch, in March. “Boeing is ready to repeat an OFT (if necessary). We have no intention of avoiding this. We just want to make sure that everything we fly next is in line with NASA’s preferences. And of course for All For us, the safety of the crew is number one. “