Boeing hints at delayed first crewed flight of Starliner
Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia, on September 26, 2017, Chris Ferguson, director of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew and mission systems, discussed testing of the company’s commercial crew spacecraft. In an interview with Space News, Ferguson indicated that “our crewed flight test is fourth quarter – perhaps, depending on the outcome, maybe the first quarter of the following year.”
Ongoing Starliner testing
Ferguson discussed the first crewed flight in the context of Starliner’s other testing, which must be extensive to meet NASA’s human-rating requirements.
In that Space News interview, Ferguson said that the Starliner testing schedule includes a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the second quarter of 2018, this would be followed by an uncrewed orbital test flight, which is currently slated to take place in the third quarter of 2018.
Without citing any technical problems with the spacecraft, Ferguson only said: “We’ll fly when we’re ready. There’s a lot of pieces that have to come together to enable us to do that.”
Boeing is currently working with NASA to select a crew for that first flight at “L-12 months” – one year before the mission. Following the flight test program and certification by NASA, the company has been contracted for six crewed flights to the International Space Station.
Ferguson also indicated that Boeing is looking to market Starliner to customers beyond NASA: “We are looking for participants in the form of countries, industries and individuals that want to participate in this great business of human spaceflight.”
Speed vs. safety
This is not the first time that Boeing has announced a delay in Starliner’s test program. In October 2016, citing development and production concerns, Boeing spokesman William Barksdale stated that the company would delay its pad abort test from October 2017 to January 2018, with the uncrewed test flight moving from December 2017 to June of 2018.
The specific issues at that time included production delays and minor component qualification test issues as well as delays stemming from a spacecraft dome element, which was damaged during the manufacturing process.
The effort to restore the United States’ capability to launch humans into space continues to face an ongoing struggle between getting things done sooner and getting them done safely. NASA’s Inspector General’s Office released a report in September 2016 which found that commercial crew missions would likely be delayed until 2018, three years past the original target date. Both contractors’ challenges will create additional delays for the Commercial Crew Program, which continues to face criticism from Congress.
Despite the delays, Ferguson was proud to show off Boeing’s Starliner simulator at the IAC and expressed confidence in the spacecraft’s future. “After six years of my involvement, and several more years before that, it finally looks like it’s beginning to come together. I’ve got a very good feeling about our ability to get launched next year.”
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.