Starliner in orbit
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner will reach the ISS a little more than a day after its scheduled Dec. 20 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Boeing

WASHINGTON — Boeing announced April 6 that it has decided to fly a second uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle later this year to confirm it has corrected problems encountered in a test flight last December.

In a brief statement, Boeing said it would perform a second Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of the spacecraft at its own expense. Boeing made the announcement shortly after the Washington Post reported that the company planned to repeat the flight.

“We have chosen to refly our Orbital Flight Test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system,” the company said in a one-paragraph statement. “Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer.”

A second OFT mission looked increasingly likely in the months after the original OFT. That mission was shortened to two days and without a planned docking at the International Space Station because of a timer problem on the spacecraft that caused it to think it was at a different phase of its flight immediately after separation from the Atlas 5 upper stage that launched it.

An investigation also revealed a problem with software controls for the spacecraft’s service module that could have caused the module to bump back into the crew module after they separated shortly before reentry. The software was fixed just a few hours before reentry.

Boeing, anticipating the need to refly the mission, took a $410 million charge against earnings in January. “NASA’s approval is required to proceed with a flight test with astronauts on board. Given this obligation, we are provisioned for another uncrewed mission,” Greg Smith, Boeing’s chief financial officer, said in a Jan. 29 earnings call.

While an independent review of the OFT mission found 61 corrective actions for Boeing, NASA officials said in early March they had not yet decided if Boeing needed to perform a second uncrewed test flight.

“At the end of the day, what we have got to decide is, based upon the work that Boeing will do, do we have enough confidence to say we are ready to fly with a crew, or do we believe that we need another uncrewed test flight?” Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a March 6 call with reporters. “We are still a ways away from that, and I can’t even tell you what the schedule is for making that decision” about reflying OFT.

Ultimately, that decision came from Boeing, and not from NASA. In a separate statement, NASA said it not made its own conclusion about whether a second OFT was required.

“If Boeing would have proposed a crewed mission as the next flight, NASA would have completed a detailed review and analysis of the proposal to determine the feasibility of the plan,” the agency said. “However, as this was not the recommendation made by Boeing, NASA will not speculate on what the agency would have required.”

NASA added that Boeing still has to address the 61 corrective actions from the independent review. “NASA still intends to conduct the needed oversight to make sure those corrective actions are taken,” the agency said.

“Hats off to Boeing for recommending a repeat of their Orbital Flight Test for the Commercial Crew program,” Loverro tweeted after the Boeing announcement. “Corporate responsibility takes many forms, and this is one of them.”

NASA and Boeing are still working on an “agreeable schedule” for the second OFT mission, Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling told SpaceNews, but said that the company expects to fly it in the fall of 2020. That would mean it would come after SpaceX’s Demo-2 crewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, currently scheduled for no earlier than the latter half of May. If that mission flies on schedule and is a success, NASA will likely launch the first operational Crew Dragon mission, Crew-1, in late summer.

Drelling also said that Boeing will use the Starliner spacecraft called “Spacecraft 2” for the second OFT mission. That spacecraft was originally slated to fly the Crew Flight Test. The Starliner used for the OFT, “Spacecraft 3,” was to be refurbished for the first operational mission for NASA.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...