Boeing confirms delay of Starliner’s first test flight

The Commercial Crew program is well on its way to changing the way the world accesses space, but SpaceX may hog the glory this year if rival Boeing keeps putting off the first tests of its complete Starliner system. The first uncrewed test flight, tentatively scheduled for May, has been pushed all the way out to August, Boeing confirmed yesterday.

Reports surfaced late last month that the delay was coming, and the company has only just confirmed them, citing a tight schedule at the launch platform it was looking at using. There was only a two-day launch window in May, and any trouble might have affected the launch of the AEHF 5 military communications satellite.

The company issued a statement explaining its decision:

In order to avoid unnecessary schedule pressure, not interfere with a critical national security payload, and allow appropriate schedule margin to ensure the Boeing, United Launch Alliance and NASA teams are able to perform a successful first launch of Starliner, we made the most responsible decision available to us and will be ready for the next launch pad availability in August, while still allowing for a Crew Flight Test later this year.

This kind of thing is of course extremely common, and it’s the reason new spaceports and launch pads are being built all over the world. More launches need more launchpads — it’s pretty simple. But few have the resources available at Cape Canaveral yet, so for some major programs there’s no real choice.

But as NASA Spaceflight points out, if Boeing was really planning a May launch, the rocket and capsule would have needed to be there well before now. The fact that the necessary parts were never put in place and assembled suggests that it was known this date would be missed long ago, and ULA instructed not to go forward with preparations. So really this announcement only confirms what everyone in the industry already must have suspected.

Success in August would mean a crewed test in November, but that leaves precious little room for delays in a program that is already years behind schedule. And to have an upstart competitor accomplish what they couldn’t would be a real slap in the face for a company already under fire.

If SpaceX’s plan to launch with a crew in July pans out, that would be embarrassing to Boeing for sure, but the simple truth is these things take as long as they have to. Boeing has to get this right, and if it’s at the cost of some reputation, well, the quality of the capsule will help build that reputation back up.

In a separate statement, NASA and Boeing also announced that the mission itself will be extended in order to accommodate some extra research and maintenance operations.