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NASA Mulls Next Steps for Boeing's Starliner Astronaut Taxi After Shortened Test Flight

An environmental enclosure is put into position over the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, on Dec. 22, 2019. The capsule was named "Calypso" by NASA astronaut Suni Williams, who will command its first re-flight.
An environmental enclosure is put into position over the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, on Dec. 22, 2019. The capsule was named "Calypso" by NASA astronaut Suni Williams, who will command its first re-flight.
(Image: © NASA/Bill Ingalls)

It'll be a little while before we know if the next flight of Boeing's new CST-100 Starliner capsule will carry astronauts.

On Dec. 20, 2019, Starliner launched on an uncrewed mission called Orbital Flight Test (OFT), which was designed to demonstrate the capsule's ability to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing has been contracted by NASA's Commercial Crew Program to do just that, as has SpaceX.

OFT was supposed to last eight days and feature an autonomous docking with the station. But Starliner suffered a glitch with its onboard timing system shortly after liftoff and got stranded in an orbit too low to allow a rendezvous with the ISS. The reusable capsule ended up zooming around Earth by itself for 48 hours, then coming down for a picture-perfect landing in New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range on Dec. 22.

Related: Boeing's 1st Starliner Flight Test in Photos

The original plan called for OFT to be followed by a crewed demonstration mission to the ISS. And that option is still on the table, despite the issues with December's flight, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in an update Tuesday (Jan. 7).

"NASA is evaluating the data received during the mission to determine if another uncrewed demonstration is required. This decision is not expected for several weeks as teams take the necessary time for this review," Bridenstine wrote. 

"NASA's approach will be to determine if NASA and Boeing received enough data to validate the system's overall performance, including launch, on-orbit operations, guidance, navigation and control, docking/undocking to the space station, reentry, and landing," he added. "Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system's full capabilities."

Bridenstine also announced that NASA and Boeing are forming a joint team to investigate Starliner's timing anomaly and figure out how to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

"Once underway, the investigation is targeted to last about two months before the team delivers its final assessment," the NASA head wrote. He added that Starliner is currently being transported from White Sands to Boeing's facilities on Florida's Space Coast, where the capsule will be examined in even greater detail.

The latest big Commercial Crew contracts were awarded in 2014. Boeing got $4.2 billion to finish development work on Starliner and fly six operational, crewed ISS missions. SpaceX got $2.6 billion to do the same with its Crew Dragon capsule.

Crew Dragon aced its version of OFT, the uncrewed Demo-1, in March of last year. SpaceX is now gearing up for a crucial in-flight test of the capsule's emergency-escape system, which is targeted for Jan. 18. If that test goes well, Crew Dragon would be pretty much cleared for Demo-2, a test mission that will fly NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the ISS.

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  • Ryan F. Mercer
    You can call it a failed flight or an incomplete test, but a "shortened flight" is not a thing. It's an excuse.
    Reply
  • Admiral Lagrange
    I think it's a great thing to know the Starliner can bring our people back home if they don't reach their destination, BUT !!! I believe one of the things the Starliner was suppose to demonstrate was "autonomous docking" ? It was a failed flight test and should be redone. I think that might create another problem though; If they do another unmanned flight, will they have enough Russian engines to do an actual mission flight ?
    Reply
  • Shilka
    That portion of the test may be incomplete, but, considering all that was accomplished for a first launch - that was far from a failure! As far as engines go, it's an Atlas V, and it has a decent schedule this year; engines are available. Given the importance of this, they could easily move an engine 'up in the queue' from satellite insertion to another Starliner test. Remember, spacex had to build another Crew Dragon, after their flight bird exploded (now, THAT was a failure).
    Reply
  • vadertime
    I think "shortened test flight" is a gross embellishment of a failed trial run of Boeing's Space Taxi. It failed to reach the proper orbit. How is this going to work if we have actual astronauts on board and the spacecraft fails to achieve the proper orbit in order to dock with the ISS? They just come back to Earth and we write it off as a multi-million dollar joyride at the taxpayer's expense? This was a complete and utter failure and let's be honest about it and it cost a lot of money.
    Reply
  • Merlin2721
    In light of the problems with the 737 Max, why would NASA consider allowing them to continue without demonstrating total success? Isn't one disastrous bypassing of sound testing procedure more than enough???
    Reply
  • EastTNBill
    Hum, let's see; Boeing gets four billion, SpaceX get two and a half. SpaceX is about to complete an all up test including an in-flight abort and has already demo'd autonomous docking. Boeing has demo'd their abort rocket, but wants NASA to accept a computer simulation of an inflight abort. Boeing screwed up their demo flight due to bad software but wants NASA to OK a crewed flight. What's wrong with this picture.
    Admin said:
    It'll be a little while before we know if the next flight of Boeing's new CST-100 Starliner capsule will carry astronauts.

    NASA Mulls Next Steps for Boeing's Starliner Astronaut Taxi After Shortened Test Flight : Read more
    Reply
  • Admiral Lagrange
    Shilka said:
    As far as engines go, it's an Atlas V, and it has a decent schedule this year; engines are available
    Reply
  • Admiral Lagrange
    The Atlas V requires 3 RD-180 engines.

    Per The Moscow Times "“We signed a contract where we will supply six more RD-180 engines to our partners in 2020,” the head of Russia’s Energomash enginemaker, Igor Arbuzov, told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency "
    Another autonomous test flight, the manned test flight 2, mission flight 1, requires 9 RD-180 Engines.

    Also looks like the next X-37 flight goes to SpaceX too.
    Reply
  • GeoXXX
    Ryan F. Mercer said:
    You can call it a failed flight or an incomplete test, but a "shortened flight" is not a thing. It's an excuse.
    It’s not an excuse, it’s an accurate description(shortened flights are definitely a “thing” btw).
    Reply
  • GeoXXX
    Shilka said:
    That portion of the test may be incomplete, but, considering all that was accomplished for a first launch - that was far from a failure! As far as engines go, it's an Atlas V, and it has a decent schedule this year; engines are available. Given the importance of this, they could easily move an engine 'up in the queue' from satellite insertion to another Starliner test. Remember, spacex had to build another Crew Dragon, after their flight bird exploded (now, THAT was a failure).
    Uh-oh you are going to have all the Space-X fanboys here fainting from anger!
    Reply