WASHINGTON — The chief executive of Boeing says his company is still committed to the CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle despite the latest problems that have further delayed the program.
In an interview on the “Check 6” podcast by Aviation Week published June 16, Dave Calhoun said that Boeing was not “shutting the door” on Starliner after the company postponed the first crewed flight of the vehicle that had been scheduled for late July.
“We’re going to do whatever NASA asks us to do,” he said when asked about the program at the end of the podcast. “We do believe in it, and we believe there has to be more than one player.”
NASA is currently relying on its other commercial crew partner, SpaceX, to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has conducted 10 crewed launches over three years, seven for NASA and three fully commercial ones, including the Ax-2 flight to the station in May.
Boeing had been preparing from its Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, the first flight of Starliner with astronauts on board, when it announced June 1 that it was postponing the launch. Recent reviews found issues with parts of the spacecraft’s parachute system as well as tape used in wire harnesses that is flammable.
In that briefing, Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for CST-100 Starliner at Boeing, appeared to raise questions about the future of the overall Starliner effort, saying the company had been talking internally “about the future of Starliner and how we’re going to move forward.” He later clarified that meant long-term evaluations about building another spacecraft and shifting from the Atlas 5. There had not been “serious discussions” about terminating the program, he added.
“We have definitely fallen behind in it,” Calhoun acknowledged in the podcast about Boeing’s work on Starliner compared to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. “Technically, we think we know what we’re doing. I think ultimately with every next successful launch, we’ll demonstrate that.”
Neither NASA nor Boeing has provided an update on either the parachute or tape issues since the June 1 announcement. At that time, Nappi said he would not comment on how long the CFT mission would be delayed “until we spend the next several days understanding what we need to go do.”
At a June 8 Space Transportation Association event here, Ken Bowersox, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said those reviews were still ongoing. “We’re trying to find the best opportunity,” he said, suggesting at the time it would take an additional one to two weeks. “We want to make sure Starliner launches when it’s ready.”
Both Bowersox and Janet Petro, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said a rescheduled launch for the CFT mission would depend not just on the vehicle’s readiness but also the overall launch manifest. “Because there is such a heavy manifest, it always becomes a discussion between the various NASA programs and between the Space Force and their missions as to when we can fit it in,” she said.
Boeing has not disclosed what additional costs it will incur from this latest delay. The company has recorded nearly $900 million in charges against earnings for the program from past problems and delays, raising questions about whether Starliner will ever break even.
“We’re not shutting the door on it in any way, shape or form,” Calhoun said of Starliner. “We intend to do it — make money on it — but we’re going to let the market and our customer let that play out, and we’ll see what happens.”
He appeared to deemphasize that part of Boeing’s overall space portfolio, highlighting instead its work on the Space Launch System and various defense program. “Low Earth orbit and building out a big presence in that world is not going to be our number one focus,” he said. Boeing is one of the partners on Orbital Reef, a commercial space station project led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space.