NASA and Boeing set do-over Starliner orbital test flight for March 2021

NASA and Boeing are looking to March 29, 2021 as the earliest possible date for their Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), a key qualifying demonstration mission in their ongoing Commercial Crew spaceflight program. Boeing is the second company selected by NASA to build and qualify a human space launch system for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and it’s still working toward certifying its vehicle, while SpaceX, the other company selected, has already flown its first active service mission.

Boeing originally flew the first version of this mission last December. The company’s Starliner CST-100 crew spacecraft took off as planned aboard a ULA rocket, which performed its part of the mission perfectly. The capsule encountered an error with its onboard mission timer, however, and due to a momentary blackout in ground communications, it wasn’t able to be corrected in time to preserve enough fuel to keep Starliner on track to rendezvous with the Space Station, which was among the primary goals of the demonstration flight.

Boeing managed to still conduct a successful re-entry, descent and recovery of the Starliner capsule — all good tests of other key mission goals. But the company and the agency eventually decided that the OFT test would need to be repeated before any final, crewed demonstration mission took place.

After a lengthy and thorough investigation, Boeing and NASA both implemented changes to their software development process and partnership to ensure that future errors like the one that affected the mission timer wouldn’t take place. The partners had initially hoped to re-fly this mission sometime this month, approximately a year after the first try, but the timelines have slipped since then and at last mention, the first quarter of next year was the earliest likely window.

NASA hopes to have Boeing’s spacecraft certified so that it can rely on not one, but two providers of commercial transportation services for astronauts to low-Earth orbit. That diversified provider mix should also help spur increased commercial activity in Earth’s orbit centred on human spaceflight.