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Upcoming tests will reveal whether Boeing’s Starliner is ready for prime time

Published Oct 10th, 2019 5:39PM EDT
boeing starliner
Image: Boeing

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It’s no secret that NASA is increasingly leaning on commercial partners to meet its various needs, and when it comes to sending humans into space, Boeing and SpaceX are already behind schedule. Both companies have seen their share of setbacks with regard to their independent commercial crew programs, but SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has already made an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station, and Boeing is playing catch-up.

As SpaceNews reports, Boeing VP John Mulholland recently revealed the company’s immediate plans for Starliner testing. According to the executive, Boeing intends to have its Starliner ready for a launch abort test early next month, with an uncrewed orbital test flight squeezing in before the end of 2019.

Starliner will reportedly make its maiden voyage to space on December 17th, which is right around the corner. Completing that test flight wouldn’t necessarily bring Boeing even with SpaceX, but it would be a big step toward fulfilling the needs of NASA, which desperately needs vehicles that can send humans to the space station.

The launch abort test, currently slated for November 4th, will see Starliner simulate a last-second mission abort, which would be needed in the case of a rocket failure or malfunction. In such a scenario, the crew vehicle must be capable of rapidly escaping its perch on top of a booster and safely carry its crew back to Earth.

Both Boeing and SpaceX were expected to be much farther along in their development of crew vehicles by this point, leaving NASA scrambling to secure seats aboard Russian spacecraft bound for the ISS.

SpaceX had clearly been leading its competitor, but an “anomaly” that resulted in the total destruction of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static fire demonstration put progress on hold for SpaceX. With that investigation complete, SpaceX is now proceeding with its own testing schedule and will carry out another flight test in December at the latest.

Now, with both the Crew Dragon and Starliner proceeding through crucial tests, we might finally be nearing the finish line, but since neither vehicle has carried a living, breathing human, it’s not time to celebrate just yet.