NASA has announced that the second uncrewed Boeing Starliner test flight will be delayed by more than a month. The test had previously been delayed from late March to early April.
In a March 4 update, NASA outlined a number of challenges the agency and Boeing are facing in their efforts to get the Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) off the ground. The reasons cited by the agency included winter storms in Houston and the replacement of avionics boxes, which it said pushed the launch back two weeks.
However, NASA added that the mission would be delayed even further due to the volume of visiting spacecraft to the International Space Station in April. The station is expected to welcome Soyuz MS-18 on April 10 and SpaceX Crew-2 on April 23. According to the agency, it is working with Boeing to find the earliest possible launch date for the OFT-2 mission.
“Boeing has done an incredible amount of work on Starliner to be ready for flight and we’ll provide an update soon on when we expect to launch the OFT-2 mission,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
In preparation for the mission, Boeing has completed power-on testing and checkouts of the OFT-2 vehicle to validate the new avionics boxes. The next step will see the company commence with fueling operations and the stacking of the launch vehicle, a variant of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V that is only used for Starliner missions.
The OFT-2 mission will be an important step in ensuring Starliner is safe for crewed flight following the vehicle’s anomalous maiden flight.
The first Starliner was launched on December 20, 2019. Although the ULA Atlas V performed flawlessly, the Starliner vehicle struggled from the moment it was deployed.
Following its separation from the Atlas V upper stage, the vehicle was designed to automatically fire its Orbital Maneuvering Thrusters to push it into a stable orbit around Earth. Due to an issue with the spacecraft’s Mission Elapsed Time system, it failed to do so leaving it in a suborbital trajectory. By the time ground crews were able to fire the thrusters manually after dealing with communication issues, a successful rendezvous with the ISS was impossible.
Despite the late burn, Boeing was nonetheless able to achieve a stable orbit.
After the anomalous start to the mission, crews were encouraged to take a closer look at every aspect of the flight. During this investigation, a bug was discovered that could have resulted in the destruction of the vehicle during reentry. The bug was fixed just two hours before the Starliner capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
The Starliner OFT-1 mission concluded with a safe touchdown at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on December 22, 2019.
Although an investigation, subsequent redesign of several aspects of the vehicle, and a reexamination of Boeing’s internal safety culture have since been completed successfully, Starliner has an uphill battle to prove it is safe to carry NASA astronauts.