What’s Going On With the Boeing Starliner?


If you follow space exploration news, you may know that Boeing has had issues with its entry into NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the Starliner. This crewed spacecraft with an appearance reminiscent of early NASA spacecraft faced repeated delays. The delays forced NASA to reassign a couple of its astronauts from Starliner to the SpaceX Crew Dragon at one point.

Boeing finally launched its first crewed test flight to the International Space Station on June 8 with Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore on board. The mission was expected to last eight days, with some echos of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission. However, it hasn’t returned yet.

Despite some news reports, the crew isn’t in any danger — or at least, not much more danger than would be normal for International Space Station operations with a visiting crew on board. Boeing and NASA personnel are troubleshooting the issues with the Starliner docked to the space station. If anything, Boeing knows that it doesn’t need the additional PR disaster of having lost a couple of astronauts after the well-publicized safety issues with its airplanes.

If anything, it might be amusing if SpaceX has to send one of its Crew Dragons to bring the two astronauts back. However, the crew seems in reasonably good spirits despite the delays. NASA could bring them home if needed but seems willing to give Boeing additional time to troubleshoot the Starliner.

Boeing and Commercial Crew

Boeing became one of two aerospace companies selected for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX was the other company. The Commercial Crew Program represented a swivel in NASA’s operations. Previously, NASA purchased hardware like the Space Shuttles and components for the International Space Station from the contractors that manufactured them.

Now it would help foot the bill for developing the next generation of spacecraft with fixed-cost contracts. Then it would buy rides on spacecraft owned by the same private companies. Boeing’s contract to develop the Starliner was worth $4.2 billion and represented a possible swivel from the cost-plus model it had become accustomed to when competing for NASA contracts.

The terms of the development contract included a series of rigorous milestones that Boeing needed to achieve. These included comprehensive design reviews, ground tests, and flight tests to demonstrate the Starliner’s capabilities. The goal was to ensure that the spacecraft met NASA’s stringent safety standards, which included advanced safety features such as an emergency launch abort system and redundant flight systems. NASA also called for an autonomous docking system to increase precision when docking to the International Space Station. Other nice-to-have features included reusability, cost control, and increased mission frequency. This approach thoroughly tested Boeing’s engineering talent.

Competition with the SpaceX Crew Dragon

The competition between Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon highlighted the differences between the two companies that had been awarded contracts for the Commercial Crew Program. Both companies were tasked with developing crewed spacecraft to transport astronauts to the ISS, but their approaches and progress have varied. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, adopted an aggressive development strategy, focusing on rapid prototyping and iterative testing.

The Crew Dragon quickly achieved significant milestones, including the successful Demo-1 uncrewed flight to the ISS in March 2019 and the historic Demo-2 crewed flight in May 2020. Since then, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has carried eight crews to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program. The most recent one, Crew-8, is currently docked to the International Space Station and expected to return in August 2024.

Learning from the success of its development strategy, SpaceX continues to pursue frequent test flights for its Starship/Super Heavy stack. It remains undeterred by the loss of several Starship prototypes during its testing phase and recently conducted a successful orbital test of a Starship/Super Heavy prototype.

In contrast, Boeing’s Starliner has faced delays and technical challenges. The first uncrewed flight test, Orbital Flight Test (OFT), in December 2019, encountered a software error that prevented the spacecraft from reaching the ISS. This setback underscored the complexities of spacecraft development and the importance of rigorous testing and quality assurance. Boeing’s subsequent efforts to address these issues and improve the spacecraft’s performance highlighted the iterative nature of aerospace engineering.

The competition between the two companies extends beyond technical achievements to include differences in corporate culture and operational philosophy. SpaceX’s approach, characterized by rapid innovation and a willingness to take risks, contrasts with Boeing’s more traditional, methodical development process. This cultural difference has influenced the pace and nature of their respective programs. SpaceX’s agility has given it a competitive edge, while Boeing’s emphasis on reliability reflects its long-standing aerospace heritage.

Despite these differences, both companies have significantly advanced human spaceflight. The presence of two viable crewed spacecraft options enhances NASA’s operational flexibility and ensures redundancy, which is crucial for maintaining continuous access to the ISS. The competition has also driven technological advancements and cost reductions, benefiting the broader space industry. Ultimately, the rivalry between Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon exemplifies the positive impact of competition in driving innovation and progress.

The development and operational successes of both spacecraft are critical for NASA’s goals. Having multiple providers ensures that NASA can maintain a continuous human presence in space, even if one provider faces technical issues. This redundancy is vital for long-term space exploration and the success of future missions to the Moon and Mars. The competition between Boeing and SpaceX has spurred both companies to achieve remarkable progress, underscoring the benefits of fostering a competitive environment in the aerospace industry.

Challenges the Starliner Has Faced

Boeing’s Starliner program has encountered several challenges, underscoring the complexities of spacecraft development. One significant setback occurred during the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019. A software error caused the spacecraft to miss its intended orbit, preventing it from reaching the International Space Station (ISS). This incident highlighted the importance of rigorous software validation and testing. Boeing’s response involved a comprehensive review and the implementation of corrective actions to prevent similar issues in future missions.

Another major challenge involved the spacecraft’s parachute system, which is crucial for the safe return of the crew capsule to Earth. Testing revealed anomalies in the parachute deployment, necessitating extensive redesign and additional testing. These issues emphasized the intricate nature of spacecraft systems and the critical need for thorough testing to ensure reliability and safety. Addressing these parachute problems required significant time and resources, further delaying the program.

The COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the Starliner program, causing disruptions in the supply chain and workforce. The pandemic led to delays in manufacturing and testing and posed challenges in maintaining the health and safety of personnel. Boeing had to navigate these obstacles while continuing to advance the program, demonstrating resilience and adaptability. The pandemic’s impact on the aerospace industry underscored the importance of contingency planning and flexibility in program management.

Financial pressures and scrutiny from stakeholders added another layer of complexity to the Starliner program. Boeing’s contract with NASA forced it to write off any cost overruns without passing the cost on to taxpayers, which it was not accustomed to. Delays and technical issues raised concerns about cost overruns and schedule slippages. Boeing had to manage expectations and communicate transparently with NASA, investors, and the public. Maintaining stakeholder confidence required demonstrating progress and addressing issues promptly. The financial pressures highlighted the importance of efficient project management and effective stakeholder engagement.

Despite these challenges, Boeing has made significant progress in advancing the Starliner program. The successful completion of the second uncrewed flight test, OFT-2, in May 2022, marked a crucial milestone. This test demonstrated the spacecraft’s capabilities and validated the corrective actions implemented after the first OFT. Boeing’s commitment to resolving technical issues and improving the spacecraft’s performance underscores the importance of resilience and continuous improvement in achieving program success.

Starliner’s Test Flights and Their Results

Boeing’s Starliner test flights have been critical in the spacecraft’s development, providing valuable data and insights. The first uncrewed flight test, Orbital Flight Test (OFT), in December 2019, experienced a software error that prevented it from docking with the International Space Station. Although the spacecraft successfully launched and landed, the incident underscored the need for thorough software verification. Boeing’s subsequent investigation and corrective actions were essential in addressing the issues identified during the mission.

In May 2022, Boeing conducted a second uncrewed flight test, known as OFT-2, which successfully reached the ISS. This mission aimed to validate the improvements made after the first OFT and demonstrate the spacecraft’s readiness for crewed missions. OFT-2 provided valuable data on the spacecraft’s systems, including propulsion, navigation, and docking mechanisms. The successful completion of this test flight marked a significant recovery from previous setbacks and underscored Boeing’s commitment to addressing technical issues.

Following the success of OFT-2, Boeing planned its first Crewed Test Flight (CTF), which is now docked to the International Space Station. It had originally been slated for February 2023 but faced repeated delays due to technical issues.

It finally launched on June 8, 2024, and remains docked to the International Space Station while engineers troubleshoot technical issues. Despite the headlines, the crew is not particularly in any danger, though it’s likely that they’ll be happy when they can finally return to Earth.

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