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NASA is worried that Boeing’s Starliner isn’t safe

Published Jul 28th, 2020 7:09PM EDT
boeing starliner
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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  • Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has had a rocky development road and failed an uncrewed flight test.
  • NASA’s independent review board is concerned with Boeing’s recent history of missteps.
  • The company will be forced to retry its uncrewed mission before trying a crewed test flight sometime next year.

When NASA first selected both Boeing and SpaceX to lead development on new crewed spacecraft as part of its Commercial Crew program, some saw SpaceX as the wild card. Boeing, a longtime NASA contractor, was expected to finish its Starliner spacecraft well in advance of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. That was what some assumed, at least. The reality has been much different.

SpaceX jumped ahead early and never looked back, completing its uncrewed test flights and then sending a pair of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station successfully. Meanwhile, Boeing has fumbled the ball at many points during the development of Starliner, with its most drastic snafu coming during the uncrewed test flight that was forced to abort a trip to the ISS after a glitch threw a wrench in things.

An independent NASA analysis of the Starliner program returned a whole bunch of problems that needed to be solved. The report included dozens of “recommendations” that NASA wanted to see addressed before Boeing attempted another launch. As SpaceflightNow reports, NASA remains skeptical and perhaps a bit concerned that Boeing can actually get things right in a timely manner.

“However, despite this progress, which is definite and in fact measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program,” Donald McErlean, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel recently said. “We realize that the CCP (Commercial Crew Program) has been working with the safety and engineering communities to address these issues, but this is still an issue that the panel will continue to watch closely as OFT (Orbital Flight Test) and later CFT (Crewed Flight Test) are conducted.”

Because of the issues with the first uncrewed flight test of Starliner, Boeing will now be forced to retry that mission again before NASA will allow its astronauts to set foot inside the spacecraft. If the uncrewed flight test goes well, the first crewed mission will include a trio of astronauts on a trip to the International Space Station. After that, the spacecraft will have to safely return to Earth before NASA will be able to certify it for regular use.

Speaking of which, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is about to embark on the very last part of its final test mission by carrying astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley back to Earth. Once it makes that trip, NASA will be able to use the Crew Dragon whenever it wants, sending humans to space from US soil once again.