Boeing’s Starliner Tests Stalled by SpaceX Progress

Boeing already has a significant hold on the aviation market, with the company being one of the largest manufacturers of jets and airplanes. However, the firm's foray into space hasn't quite been as successful, especially as it faces stiff competition from several other firms with deeper pockets and greater flexibility to operate.

Boeing’s Starliner Tests Stalled by SpaceX Progress

Now, it appears that SpaceX might have unwittingly cost Boeing even more as the latter will be pushing back on some of its projects.

Understanding the Delay

Earlier this month, it became clear that SpaceX has put a great deal of work and load on the International Space Station - so much so that Boeing doesn't have any space to dock and conduct test flights. Boeing confirmed in a statement that it had pushed the second test flight for its Starliner crew capsule - also known as the Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) mission - until late summer.

The delay is coming after months of delays, leading Boeing and NASA to push the launch date to April 2021. Now, the date is being moved again to August, with the two parties citing weather challenges and technical problems with the vehicle's avionics. Boeing has pointed out that it would be ready to launch the Starliner on the ISS in May if an earlier slot should open up. However, that launch will be uncrewed, and it will depend on the space station's schedule for servicing missions and several other factors.

In a press release, Boeing said, "The Starliner team has completed all work on the OFT-2 vehicle except for activity to be conducted closer to launch, such as loading cargo and fuelling the spacecraft. The team also has submitted all verification and validation paperwork to NASA and is completing all Independent Review Team recommended actions including those that were not mandatory ahead of OFT-2."

The SpaceX Problem

While Boeing and NASA might want to deflect, some sources believe that SpaceX might be one of the primary challenges here. As many know, Boeing and SpaceX are contractors as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The companies are tasked with developing a reusable rocket that can transport items and people to the ISS.

SpaceX has a system that consists of its Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon - a new capsule that the firm is developing. On the flip side, Boeing is developing the Starliner capsule, which it will launch on the Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance (a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin).

SpaceX delivered its Dragon capsule as far back as May 2020. Since then, the company has flown six astronauts to the ISS, covering just two missions. On the flip side, Boeing is still struggling to get the Starliner above ground.

One of the most significant upcoming tests will be to launch the uncrewed CST-100 Starliner capsule to the space station, dock it there for up to a week, and fly it back. The test was scheduled for April, but a "traffic jam" near the ISS docking port means that the company will now have to push it back.

To work, the Starliner will need to have docked at a port with an international docking adapter. However, the space station only has two such ports. One of them holds the Dragon capsule, which SpaceX used in its Crew-1 mission. The other is occupied by another Dragon, which SpaceX used in its Crew-2 mission. The latter vehicle will be at the space station for at least six months. After the Crew-1 gets back to base, another SpaceX cargo mission is set to launch in June.

With all of this, it is evident that there won't be any docking ports available this summer - at least, not until about July 20, the date when the CRS-22 Dragon will come back to Earth. That departure will open a month-long window for Starliner to conduct its test flight. So, while Boeing and NASA have yet to make a target data public, it is expected that the flight will take place in late July or early August at the earliest.

Timeline for Crewed Flights

When Starliner has its repeat test flights, it is expected that Boeing and NASA will conduct a detailed analysis of the flight. The process should take about six months, pushing crewed flights to about January 2022. There is also the fact that the Starliner's hardware will need to be ready before any flights happen.

Right now, there's no timeline for the crewed flight tests. NASA is definitely not pushing things since it already has the Crew Dragon - an operational vehicle - to meet its astronaut flight requirements.

In truth, everyone seems to be optimistic that a 2021 launch date will work for Starliner's crew test flight. However, the more real move will point to a 2022 date instead. Ports at the space station will be available around November, but December's slots are already filled as well. The best opportunity for Starliner will be to come early in 2022. There is scheduled to be a free docking port at that time, and the slot will also allow up to seven months to examine data from Orbital Flight Test 2 and provide clearance for human flights.

Once the crew test flight is successful, Boeing could fly its first fully operational Starliner mission - hopefully in 2022 as well.

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