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Boeing Starliner Mission

Boeing Will Refly the Uncrewed Starliner Mission After December Failure

Boeing has decided to take a mulligan and will launch a second uncrewed Starliner demo mission after the first one ended in failure. In its first flight late last year, the Starliner made it into orbit, but it was the wrong orbit. The company hopes this time the spacecraft will be able to reach the International Space Station (ISS) for docking and return safely to Earth, thus demonstrating its ability to carry astronauts.

Boeing has been quiet about its plans for the Starliner program in recent months. Shortly after the December failure, Boeing suggested it might not have to refly the mission. NASA, which contracted with both SpaceX and Boeing for the Commercial Crew Program, remained politely neutral. Although, we’d wager that the agency pushed for a do-over behind the scenes. “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,” Boeing said in a statement.

In December, Boeing hoped to get the Starliner to dock autonomously at the ISS. However, the spacecraft suffered several software malfunctions that left it unable to complete its mission. Shortly after separation from the first stage, a problem with the mission elapsed timer (MET) caused the flight computer to think it was in a later part of the mission. It fired its engines for orbital insertion far too early, requiring mission control to step in. Unfortunately, the craft had wasted too much fuel by then, and the only option was to maneuver it into a stable orbit that would miss the ISS.

The spacecraft also suffered a separate glitch with the program to jettison the service module prior to reentry. Again, controllers on the ground had to take control and do it manually. After that, the module did land successfully in New Mexico.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft passes by the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 21, 2019, making its way to the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

NASA and Boeing investigated the failed mission and came up with a list of 61 corrective actions. Boeing is in the process of addressing those, and it has set aside $410 million for the second uncrewed test flight this coming fall. NASA says it fully supports Boeing’s decision to do the uncrewed flight again, but it would have at least considered a crewed flight if Boeing had proposed that. The agency is probably relieved it didn’t have to, though.

This move all but guarantees SpaceX will be the first private spaceflight company to carry astronauts to the ISS. The company’s Dragon II capsule has undergone all the necessary testing, and it aced the uncrewed demo flight last year. There was that unfortunate explosion during ground testing last April, but SpaceX has reportedly addressed the issue to NASA’s satisfaction. The Dragon II should launch with a crew as soon as next month.

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