NASA and Boeing have provided some updates around their Commercial Crew plans, which aim to get Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft certified for regular human flight. The CST-100 and Boeing’s Commercial Crew aspirations hit a snag last year with a first attempt of an uncrewed orbital flight test, which did not go to plan thanks to a couple of software errors that led to an early mission ending, and a failure to reach the International Space Station as intended.
In a blog post on Friday, NASA said that it and partner Boeing were aiming to fly the re-do of that uncrewed test no earlier than December 2020. This will involve flying the fully reusable Starliner CST-100 without anyone on board, in a live, fully automated simulation of how a launch with crew would go, including a rendezvous and docking with the ISS on orbit, and a return trip and controlled landing and capsule recovery.
During the original OFT last December, the spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V as planned, but encountered an issue with its onboard mission timer shortly after disengaging from the launch vehicle. That caused it to misfire its thrusters and expend fuel, and a communication error meant that NASA was not able to correct the issue until it had used too much fuel to allow it to continue to the Space Station as planned. The capsule did safely return to Earth, however, and provided valuable test data on the way.
NASA and Boeing subsequently undertook a comprehensive review of Boeing’s software development program, as well as the agency’s own practices surrounding the public-private partnership, and determined a number of corrective actions. That review ended in July, and the partners have now been working to get back to a second demonstration flight.
Boeing has a lot riding on this re-do, since NASA’s other partner in the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX, is now at least a year ahead in terms of its qualification program. SpaceX recently successfully completed its first crewed demonstration mission of its Dragon spacecraft, and could launch its first operational astronaut mission to the International Space Station as early as October.
Provided OFT-2 goes as intended for Boeing, Starliner could be ferrying its first passengers for a crewed demonstration launch as early as June 2021, with plans for a first operational mission now set for December 2021. All these dates are subject to change, of course.