Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft made its maiden voyage late last year, but the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) didn’t go as planned. The spacecraft was unable to reach the correct orbit and came back to Earth early. It looked like a major setback for Boeing at the time, but there’s still hope it will be able to proceed with the planned launch schedule. NASA and Boeing are the data from that first launch to decide if the capsule needs to do it again.
The OFT mission launched on December 20, 2019. It was supposed to include a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) and a demonstration of the capsule’s automated docking system. However, we now know the timer on the spacecraft was off by 11 hours, which caused the computer to think it was in the wrong phase of the mission after it separated from the first stage. As a result, the capsule attempted an orbital insertion burn, wasting 25 percent of its fuel. At that point, the capsule didn’t have enough fuel to reach the space station.
Boeing brought the CST-100 back to Earth after 48 hours in orbit, far short of the eight days originally planned. The landing at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range did at least go off without a hitch. While the mission failed to demonstrate all the spacecraft’s capabilities, NASA is still considering allowing Boeing to proceed with a crewed launch. That seems unusually permissive for NASA, but there is a time crunch as the agency runs low on guaranteed seats on Russian Soyuz capsules.
According to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, NASA and Boeing have formed a joint panel to analyze the data acquired during the abbreviated OFT flight. If NASA determines that the data validates the capsule’s various systems, Boing won’t have to perform a second OFT. Instead, Boeing would be allowed to proceed with a crewed demonstration flight to the ISS. That would be the first time the Starliner visited the ISS.
Bridenstine says it will take several weeks for the panel to make its determination. In the meantime, SpaceX is preparing for its final uncrewed demo flight, which will test the capsule’s in-flight abort system. The SuperDraco engines used in the abort system were also associated with the explosion that destroyed the company’s Dragon II spacecraft during ground testing last year. SpaceX worked quickly to identify the cause and alter its design. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess which company will begin flying crewed missions first.