Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule will launch toward the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2021, if all goes according to plan.
Boeing and NASA announced on Wednesday (Dec. 9) that they're targeting March 29 for the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), Starliner's second attempt to meet up with the orbiting lab. On the first try, in December 2019, Starliner suffered a glitch with its onboard timing system, got stranded in the wrong orbit and came back down to Earth without achieving the planned rendezvous.
A post-flight investigation of OFT-1 revealed several problems with the capsule's software. But the Starliner team has been working through those issues and is now formally qualifying the flight software ahead of OFT-2.
"NASA and Boeing are doing a tremendous amount of work on all aspects of their flight software, running numerous cases through the Boeing high-fidelity simulation environment that includes the Starliner avionics," Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a statement on Wednesday.
In September 2014, the Commercial Crew Program awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to finish developing Starliner and to fly at least six crewed missions to and from the space station for NASA.
If OFT-2 is successful, a crewed test flight to the orbiting lab will follow, potentially in the summer of 2021. Starliner would then be clear to begin flying operational crewed missions.
SpaceX snared a NASA commercial crew deal in September 2014 as well, in its case worth $2.6 billion. Elon Musk's company launched its first operational astronaut mission last month, sending NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker and Japan's Soichi Noguchi to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon capsule.
That SpaceX mission, known as Crew-1, marked the third visit to the ISS for a Crew Dragon. SpaceX flew an uncrewed test flight to the orbiting outpost in March 2019 and a two-month-long crewed demonstration mission, called Demo-2, this past summer.
The newly announced target date for OFT-2 is consistent with recent statements by Stich, who identified the first quarter of 2021 as the earliest possible liftoff opportunity.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.