Boeing has confirmed what many suspected following the partial failure of their original Starliner capsule Orbital Flight Test (OFT) – the company will re-fly the mission, once again seeking to test and demonstrate the Starliner’s launch, flight, Space Station docking and landing capabilities prior to flying a version of the mission with actual astronauts on board.
In a statement, Boeing said that it “has chosen” to re-fly the mission, in order to “demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system.” The aim will be to do all the test objectives that were on the table the first time around, the statement continues, and this second flight will be flown “at no cost to the taxpayer,” which presumably means Boeing is eating the cost of the unplanned second attempt.
During the first OFT, the launch (aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket) went exactly to plan, but after the Starliner decoupled from the launch vehicle, it fired its own engines too early owing to a mission timer error, and expended more fuel than was planned without reaching its target orbit. NASA and Boeing decided to end the mission early rather than attempt a Space Station docking after putting the Starliner into a stable orbit, and found, then fixed a second error during the landing process.
Initially, both NASA and Boeing maintained that further investigation would be required before making a determination about whether another OFT mission would have to be flown. Representatives from both noted that the original OFT, while not successful in each of its goals, nevertheless did prove out the proper working of many aspects of the Starliner’s systems. Immediately following the launch and initial error, NASA and Boeing held a press conference in which NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine further noted that were astronauts on board, they likely could’ve saved the original mission goal of a docking via manual intervention.
No timeline has been given for the OFT re-flight, but it’s definitely going to impact the schedule for when Boeing will be able to fly its first astronauts aboard Starliner. Boeing and SpaceX are both participating in NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which aims to return human launch capabilities to U.S. soil via partners from private industry. SpaceX is now preparing for its first crewed demonstration mission, which is currently set to take place sometime in mid-to-late May.
Boeing’s aircraft operations are also encountering setbacks – but due primarily to COVID-19. The company announced it would be ending production of 787 airplanes at its South Carolina factory on Monday, which essentially mans that all of its commercial aircraft production capacity is currently paused.