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Boeing's spacecraft is about to launch with astronauts on board

Let's hope Starliner's crewed flight test goes well

This week’s newsletter is all about Boeing Starliner, a new crew vehicle to take astronauts to the International Space Station. To read about the Hubble Space Telescope’s problems this week, see the previous issue of Ad Astra.

Boeing Starliner is scheduled to take its first astronauts to space on a test mission scheduled for no earlier than May 6. This mission was originally supposed to launch in early 2017. Let’s dive into everything you need to know about this first crewed flight, CFT, and the messy history of Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 spacecraft.

The launch is currently scheduled for May 6 at 10:34 PM ET, and the launch vehicle is ULA’s Atlas V rocket, lifting off from Launch Complex 41. The spacecraft will take astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station, and it’s currently scheduled to dock with the ISS on May 8 at 12:48 am. The mission will last about eight days. Coverage is scheduled to begin at 6:30 pm ET on NASA TV and NASA’s YouTube channel, and as always, these dates and times are subject to change.

Credit: Boeing

Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and previous NASA capsules (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo), Starliner will land on land, not in the water. It has multiple landing site options, but for this launch, the primary landing site is the White Sands missile range in New Mexico. 

This launch has been delayed for various reasons, but most recently just because of traffic at the International Space Station. Basically, the Harmony module has two docking ports for Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner. However, the forward docking port is basically easier, and so they wanted to open that up for Starliner’s mission. 

Earlier this week, there was the Crew-8 Crew Dragon at the forward docking port (the crew vehicles stay with the crew, so everyone always has a way to get off Space Station if there’s an emergency) and an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon resupply vehicle at the other port. The supply ship successfully undocked on April 28, and then the Crew-8 astronauts undocked from the forward docking port and moved their spacecraft on May 2, leaving the forward facing docking port open for Starliner. There’s a lot of traffic up there.

Boeing has had two uncrewed flight tests before this, OFT-1 and OFT-2, and…well, there were problems. Let’s go through the history of Boeing Starliner, and why it’s taken so long for this spacecraft to have its first crewed flight test.

What is Commerical Crew, and why is Boeing building a spaceship for NASA?

After the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA turned to commercial providers to build the next generations of crew vehicles for transportation to low Earth orbit. This was called the Commercial Crew program, and it differed from previous models of how NASA built spaceships because, yes, those were all built by commercial companies but NASA owned and operated the vehicle. NASA was deeply involved in the design and every aspect of testing, launching, and operating the spacecraft.

Commercial Crew is different. NASA has requirements for its spacecraft that must be met, but the contractors own and operate their spacecraft. It’s their designs, and NASA is operating on a fixed-price contract model, which is cheaper for NASA. They’re basically paying for the development of these spacecraft and transportation services, and then the companies are free to use them however they wish (hence why there are private Crew Dragon flights). It’s worth noting that Boeing has said that they don’t currently have a commercial use case for Starliner, though it’s possible that will change once they show it can safely fly with crew.

Credit: NASA/ESA

So, the contract was signed in 2014Boeing got $4.2 billion, while SpaceX received $2.6 billion. The reasoning for Boeing getting the larger contract, according to NASA documents, was that at the time William Gerstenmaier thought that their approach was better. Boeing built the some of the ISS modules, so they also had experience in taking on this kind of project.

The initial crewed flight test was supposed to be by December 2017. But in 2016, Boeing delayed it to early 2018, and then to late 2018 because issues with the mass of the spacecraft and then supplier issues. It’s worth noting that SpaceX was delayed as well. 

A 2017 report from the GAO, or Government Accountability Office, made it clear that neither crew vehicle would be ready before 2019 (which was a good estimate, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon had its first crewed test flight in 2020). It pointed out that part of the delay was this new way of building spacecraft, because the collaboration required a lot more time than anyone expected. NASA wasn’t involved in the development at every level on a day to day basis, but the organization had very strict requirements that had to be met.

SpaceX’s Demo-2 flight in 2020, the first crewed flight of Crew Dragon, credit SpaceX

Then a 2019 report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that NASA and Boeing amended their contract in 2016. NASA committed to purchasing six total flights (in the original contract, it was two total with four additional flights being optional) for an additional $287.2 million dollars, basically just to ensure Boeing continued developing Starliner (which NASA’s own OIG called “unnecessary.”)

The messy test flights of Boeing Starliner

The first uncrewed test flight of Boeing Starliner occurred on December 20, 2019. It didn’t exactly go well. It was supposed to dock with the USS but a series of problems ensured that didn’t happen. Here are just a few of them:

Boeing OFT-1 (Orbital Flight Test), Credit: Boeing

(1) Starliner’s onboard timer drew an incorrect time from the Atlas V launch vehicle, and the spacecraft didn’t correctly execute the orbit insertion burn needed to get to the ISS.

(2) There was a software issue with the valves that control Starliner’s thrusters

(3) There were significant interruptions in communication with the spacecraft that affected the ground’s ability to direct it, and would have impeded the astronauts’ ability to communicate with Earth, if anyone had been on board. 

This mission was widely considered a failure (NASA officially designated it a high visibility close call) and Boeing had to redo it — that led to OFT-2 in May 2022.

Boeing OFT-2, credit: Boeing

While NASA and Boeing proclaimed this mission a success, it did have its own issues. The launch was initially scrubbed due to more valve issues on the spacecraft (these seemed to be the same valves that had problems during OFT-1). Then after a delay of over a year, the spacecraft finally launched, but it multiple thrusters fail, as well as some other issues during the flight. However, it successfully docked and undocked with the ISS and landed safely back on Earth.

Keep in mind that SpaceX Crew Dragon’s first crewed test flight was May 30, 2020, and the first operational flight — Crew-1 — was November 16, 2020. During this gap from the last Space Shuttle flight in 2011 to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flight, the Russian Soyuz capsule was the only way for astronauts to get to and from the ISS. By the end, NASA was paying over $90 million per seat for the Soyuz.

Boeing’s crewed flight test, and what the future may hold for Starliner

Okay, so it’s mid-2022. and Boeing’s uncrewed test flight was successful enough to proceed with a crewed demonstration. That was scheduled for July 21, 2023 but — yep, delayed again.

During a series of in-depth reviews that were supposed to certify Starliner for flight, NASA uncovered some issues that delayed the launch indefinitely. First, a parachute issue — the soft links that attach the lines of Starliner’s three main parachutes to their anchor tethers on the capsule had a failure load limit lower than previously thought. This meant that if one chute failed, the other two wouldn’t be able to handle the capsule’s weight. Not exactly a small problem, especially because during the pad abort tests they did for Starliner in 2019, only two of the three main parachutes deployed.

Boeing’s Pad Abort Test in 2019 — only two of the main parachutes opened, Credit: Boeing

The second issue was that the capsule was covered in tape that protected the wiring. Well, it turns out that this tape is flammable, and some of the areas it was in could experience higher temperatures than what the tape was rated for. According to the press conference on April 25, Boeing had to remove about a mile of this tape from the capsule.

So, now, here we are. seven years after the original crewed launch date of Boeing Starliner, the spacecraft is ready to launch. As of the middle of 2023, Boeing had lost $1.5 billion on Starliner, and it hasn’t even flown crew yet. Boeing is contracted to fly six total flights to the ISS, while SpaceX will fly 14 (they’ve already flown 8), which will likely take NASA through 2030, when the agency will likely retire the ISS (Space Station’s fate is not quite certain.) As calculated by Ars Technica, that equals out to about $183 million per seat for Boeing and $88 million for SpaceX. 

I want to caveat, though, that Boeing Starliner does offer a possible fifth astronaut seat that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon does not. It’s not clear, though, whether NASA will assign an additional astronaut to operational Starliner missions or use this space for cargo, so for right now, it’s better to use the traditional number of four astronauts per mission. If this flight test goes well, and the capsule is certified by NASA, then we’d likely see the first operational Starliner launch later this year or early next. 

Credit: Boeing

Is it a mess? Yes. Do I have confidence that NASA wouldn’t launch astronauts in a spacecraft they believed was unsafe? Also yes. NASA has strict guidelines on what odds it will consider acceptable odds for the loss of the crew. For this, it was 1/270 and Boeing exceeded that with a 1/295 statistic. If you’re interested in SpaceX, for their demonstration mission in 2020, it was 1/276 — so Boeing’s is technically better than SpaceX’s was, but also these are just numbers.

Given all the issues Boeing has been having on their aircraft side, they need this flight to go well. They are two different divisions within the company, but the aircraft negligence is on everyone’s mind—for the reporters as we cover this launch and the viewers as they watch it. I imagine it’s also present for those at NASA and Boeing (though they have been deftly avoiding answering any questions about this), and for the astronauts who will be in the capsule.

Let’s hope this goes well.