Crewed Boeing Spaceflight for NASA Delayed Again in Another Setback

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft rolls out to a launchpad for a test launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 18, 2022.

Boeing’s first flight with astronauts on its Starliner spacecraft is going to be delayed yet again, this time because of ongoing issues with the design of the capsule’s parachute system and tape inside the spacecraft that the company recently discovered was flammable, Boeing and NASA said Thursday.

The announcement is the latest setback for a beleaguered program that has suffered years of technical problems – stuck valves, a fuel leak and serious software malfunctions – that have delayed its first crewed flight by years, sent its costs soaring and harmed its reputation as a premier space-faring company.

Ten years after it was awarded a $4.2 billion contract by NASA, the company has yet to fly any NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. And late last year, the company said it had to take another charge for the program against earnings, bringing the total to nearly $900 million in sunk costs.

Under the original contract, each company was awarded six flights each. Given the delay, SpaceX will have completed all six before Boeing flies its first.

“The bottom line here is safety is always our top priority,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, said during a briefing with reporters. “It’s always been that way with human spaceflight. And so that’s what drives this decision. And you can say we’re disappointed because it means a delay, but the team is proud that we’re making the right choices.”

For months, Boeing and NASA have said they were working toward a test flight to space station with two NASA astronauts on July 21, a mission that earlier in the year had been set for April. But after discovering problems with the parachute system and that hundreds of feet of tape used to protect wiring inside the spacecraft is flammable, it is unclear when the company might fly.

Nappi said a flight this year is “feasible, but I certainly don’t want to commit to any days or time frames until we spend the next several days understanding what we need to go do to solve these problems.” He said the decision to stand down went all the way to Boeing CEO David Calhoun.

Last week, the chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said there were enough issues with the spacecraft to warrant an independent review before proceeding with a crewed launch attempt. “Given the number of remaining challenges to certification of Starliner, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a measured look at the remaining body of work with respect to flying CFT,” she said, using the acronym for “crewed flight test.”

This week, Boeing and NASA hinted that there might be another delay, saying in a statement that there have been “emerging issues that need a path to closure before a decision to fuel the spacecraft in June.”

In the briefing, Nappi said the issues were only recently discovered as part of a more rigorous testing process leading up to the first crewed flight. “It can be questionable – should we be catching these types of things this late?” he said. “And that might be because there was a certain sense of optimism when some of the designs were done. Some of the processes were created many years ago. And they lead to some of these things kind of creeping their way through the system.”

Regarding the tape, he said there was some “ambiguity in the specifications on the use of that tape,” which was present in the spacecraft during an earlier test flight without crew on board.

In 2014, after the end of the space shuttle program left NASA no way to fly astronauts from American soil, the space agency awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft to fly people to the space station as part of its “commercial crew program.”

Initially, both companies suffered delays. But in 2020, SpaceX, which received $2.6 billion from NASA, far less than Boeing, flew its first crew to the station. Since then, it has completed six additional crewed flights, with a seventh planned for this summer. It also has flown two private astronaut missions to the station, including one that successfully landed this week and another in which a crew of four remained in orbit for three days.

Boeing, by contrast, has continued to suffer a string of setbacks of varying degrees nearly a decade after winning the contract. That has shaken the faith of some at NASA in what traditionally had been one of the agency’s most trusted partners.

Its first test flight, in late 2019, which had no people on board went awry from the start. The onboard computer was 11 hours off, making the spacecraft think it was in an entirely different portion of the mission. While in space, Starliner struggled to communicate with the ground. And by the time controllers could figure out what was going wrong, it had burned too much fuel, which prevented it from docking with the station, one of its primary objectives. Instead, it came home after just two days.

Given the problems, Boeing decided to attempt the uncrewed flight again, in 2021. But that, too, was marred by problems. Thirteen of the valves in the spacecraft’s service module fused shut after a leak, forcing the company to stand down and redesign the system.

In May of last year, Starliner finally did complete an uncrewed test flight, docking with the station and then landing softly in the New Mexico desert. But that mission was far from perfect. Two of the spacecraft’s thrusters failed, and there were also problems with the temperature control system.

After working through those issues, the company said it was ready to fly this spring, a date that was pushed back to July. Now it’s unclear when the company might attempt the mission, which would carry Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore. Williams was first assigned to NASA’s commercial crew program in 2015.

Despite the problems, Nappi said the company is “still committed” to the program. He later commented that there have not been “serious discussions” about exiting the program.

NASA “desperately needs a second provider for crew transportation,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. “Our ultimate goal is to have one SpaceX and one Boeing flight per year to rotate our crews to station. And so we support Boeing, and we’re doing everything we can during the investigation of each of these issues and trying to get to the flight as soon as we can.”