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Boeing’s Starliner will attempt to redo its failed flight test in March

Published Jan 27th, 2021 5:03PM EST
starliner launch
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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  • Boeing’s uncrewed mission to send one of its Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2019 ended in an embarrassing malfunction.
  • The spacecraft successfully returned to Earth but never made it to the space station.
  • The company and NASA have decided to redo the test flight, and it will now take place in late March.

In what was undoubtedly one of the most high-profile failures of 2019, Boeing’s high-priced and oft-delayed Starliner spacecraft fell well short of its goal of reaching the International Space Station during a test flight. The spacecraft made it back to Earth in one piece, but it didn’t come anywhere close to reaching the space station and NASA decided that the company would need to attempt the mission again before it would allow any of its astronauts to set foot inside.

Now, after a year with a global pandemic and a huge list of items that NASA wanted Boeing to check out before it would clear the way for another test flight, Starliner is ready to fly again. Boeing and NASA have announced that the next test mission — which, again, will just be a redo of the failed 2019 mission — is currently scheduled for Thursday, March 25th.

The 2019 test flight of Starliner ended with a whimper due to what was described as an issue with the internal clock. The mission timer wasn’t synced with the actual time, and the spacecraft ended up burning a bunch of extra fuel that it needed if it was going to make it to the ISS. Instead, the spacecraft was brought back down to Earth, and Boeing insisted that if the mission had a crew on board, the issue would have been noticed and corrected before it became a real problem.

In any case, NASA did an audit of the Starliner program and came up with a huge list of things it wanted the company to address. It took a while, and the pandemic surely didn’t help matters in the slightest, but it would seem that Boeing is ready for a second shot and NASA is satisfied that it has addressed the issues that needed to be checked out.

NASA tapped both SpaceX and Boeing to develop crew-capable spacecraft for its Commercial Crew program. Early money was on Boeing to finish first, but as we’ve seen, it was clearly SpaceX that was better-equipped for the challenge, launching its Crew Dragon spacecraft test missions long before Boeing and even carrying astronauts to the space station.

Now, Boeing is playing catch-up. Assuming that the March 25th date is met and that the mission is successful in its objectives, it may still be some time before we see a crewed mission using the Starliner hardware. However, once that crewed test mission is in the rearview, NASA can certify Starliner for continued use and begin launching it with astronauts on official missions.