After Years of Delay, Boeing to Try Again with Starliner Space Capsule

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft in 2022 in Florida. A decade after NASA awarded Boeing a contract to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, the craft is set to lift off Monday with two astronauts.

Before a door-size panel blew out of a Boeing 737 Max, leaving a gaping hole in the side of an Alaska Airlines aircraft shortly after takeoff; before whistleblowers came forward to say they were threatened for bringing up safety issues at the company; and before the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into the blowout incident, Boeing was struggling with another set of issues, on another high-profile vehicle.

Its Starliner spacecraft, designed to fly astronauts to orbit under a $4.2 billion contract from NASA, had suffered a series of problems that put its launch with astronauts years behind schedule. Its onboard computer had failed during its first test flight. A second test flight was scrubbed after valves in the vehicle’s service module stuck and wouldn’t operate. Then, after the craft finally flew a test mission successfully without anyone on board, Boeing discovered that tape used as insulation on wiring inside the capsule was flammable and would need to be removed. The parachute system also had problems, which forced the company to redesign and strengthen a link between the parachutes and the spacecraft.

Now, a decade after NASA awarded Boeing a contract to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, Boeing will finally attempt to fly its Starliner spacecraft with people onboard. If all goes to plan, at 10:34 p.m. on Monday, the company is set to fly a pair of veteran astronauts, Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, on a mission that will be one of the most significant tests for Boeing’s space division – and for NASA – in years.

The flight is intended to see how the spacecraft performs in space with a crew onboard. If all goes well, the spacecraft will catch up with the space station – which travels at 17,500 mph – about a day after lifting off. Along the way, the crew members will test manually flying the spacecraft before it docks autonomously with the station. NASA and Boeing will also be eager to see how the spacecraft’s heat shield and parachutes work as it brings Williams and Wilmore back to Earth after about eight days.

NASA officials express confidence in Boeing and say the company has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the mission will be successful. They are eager to have another spacecraft, in addition to the one SpaceX flies, that can ferry astronauts to the station. “I can say with confidence that the teams have absolutely done their due diligence,” James Free, NASA’s associate administrator, said at a briefing last week.

“I see a total focus on this mission and making it successful from the way that we always have done human spaceflight in my time at NASA,” said Steve Stich, who oversees NASA’s commercial crew program. “It’s really just taking it step by step, methodically getting to flight.”

Still, launching humans to orbit is extremely difficult and dangerous, especially on a new vehicle that has a history of trouble and has never flown people before.

“The first crewed flight of a new spacecraft is an absolutely critical milestone‚” Free said. “The lives of our crew members, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, are at stake. We don’t take that lightly at all. The most important thing we can do is protect those two people, as well as our crew currently on board the space station.”

Safety, he said, “has and always will be our primary core value at NASA.”

The mission comes at a crucial time for Boeing. After the panel blew off the Alaska Airlines flight, the company announced it would reshuffle its leadership and replace CEO David Calhoun. Calhoun took over the company after another disaster – the crashes of two 737 Max airplanes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

Boeing’s commercial aviation division and its space program are managed separately. But both have faced similar quality-control issues.

After the failure of Starliner’s first test flight, managers at Boeing acknowledged they had cut short a test that would have caught the software problem. That caused NASA to offer an unusually harsh assessment of its partner, saying that “there were numerous instances where the Boeing software quality processes either should have or could have uncovered the defects.”

Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, told reporters the past week that the problems with the company’s airline division had not added to pressures in the mission.

“We signed up to go do this, and we’re going to go do it and be successful at it,” he said. “So I don’t think of it in terms of what’s important for Boeing, as much as I think of it in terms of what’s important for this program, to follow through with the commitments that we made to our customer.”

Boeing’s woes have been amplified by the fact that SpaceX has been flying astronauts on its spacecraft for four years, even though the companies received their contracts at the same time and SpaceX was paid $2.6 billion, far less than Boeing. Since then, SpaceX has flown multiple missions for NASA, as well as taken private astronauts to the station and to orbit. It also has received an extension on its contract with NASA to fly astronaut missions.

Not only has Boeing yet to fly people on Starliner but the delays have meant about $1.4 billion in cost overruns. In an interview last year, John Shannon, vice president of Boeing Exploration Systems, said the future of Starliner was uncertain. “Probably the biggest challenge I have is defining how do I make this into a positive business case, given the market conditions as we see them right now,” he said then.

Asked about the future of Starliner recently, Nappi was noncommittal. He said the company would fulfill its contract with NASA, flying a handful of missions, which would take the company to the end of the decade.

“So we’ve got plenty of time to think about what’s after that,” he said. “And we will do that. But right now, the focus is on CFT”- or the crewed flight test.

In December 2019, Starliner launched successfully to orbit, but the spacecraft ran into problems shortly after it separated from the launch vehicle. Engineers on the ground were able to diagnose the problem – the onboard computer was 11 hours off, so the spacecraft had started executing commands for an entirely different part of the flight.

Engineers also soon discovered a second software problem, which could have caused the service module to crash into the crew capsule during separation. The issues were so severe that NASA officials said the spacecraft could have been lost because of either of them, threatening the lives of astronauts, had any been on board. The flight never reached the space station, and after it returned to Earth, Boeing said it would attempt a second flight test after reviewing 1 million lines of code in the spacecraft.

The second attempt to fly the capsule without anyone onboard came about a year and a half later, during the summer of 2021. By then, Boeing said it had fixed the software issues. But this time several of the valves in the spacecraft’s service module were corroded shut, and Boeing was unable to fix them while the craft was mounted on top of the rocket at the launchpad.

Taking it down led to another delay.

Boeing finally completed the uncrewed test flight in May 2022. But a little over a year later, as it was gearing up to fly astronauts, it announced the problem with the parachute system and the flammable tape.

Part of the purpose of the crewed test flight is to see how the vehicle reacts in the vacuum of space, and NASA officials said they anticipate that the astronauts and ground controllers will have to react to unexpected issues. That, they said, is how they make the vehicle safer and more reliable.

“Let me just remind everybody again: This is a new spacecraft. I’ll also remind you this is a test flight,” Free said. “We certainly have some unknowns in this mission, things we expect to learn. This being a test mission, we may encounter things we don’t expect. But our job now is to remain vigilant and keep looking for issues.”

Williams, who was assigned years ago to the commercial crew program and has been waiting to fly since then, said she’s convinced the teams are ready.

“We do anticipate everything’s going to go as planned,” she said in an interview. “But if it doesn’t, we’ll take a moment and analyze it and talk about it, and we’ll be okay. So our confidence in the mission is high.”