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Boeing and SpaceX delay first crucial test flights of new passenger spacecraft again

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The CST-100 Starliner won’t fly people until next year

An artistic rendering of Boeing’s Starliner.
Image: Boeing

As expected, the first major test flights for Boeing and SpaceX’s new passenger spacecraft have been delayed again. Following an engine test mishap, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will likely perform two crucial test flights next year, instead of this year as planned. Meanwhile, SpaceX still aims to fly its Crew Dragon for the first time later this year without people on board, followed by its first crewed flight in April 2019.

Boeing and SpaceX are both developing spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, an initiative to send humans to the ISS on private US spacecraft. Boeing is developing the CST-100 Starliner, which is meant to carry seven passengers and travel to space on top of an Atlas V rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance. SpaceX is updating its Dragon cargo capsule to carry seven crew, and it will fly on top of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Before the vehicles are considered operational, NASA wants them to conduct both uncrewed and crewed flight tests of the capsules to see if they’re ready for regular trips to the station.

According to the most recent timeline, the Starliner was scheduled to take flight for the first time without a crew in August, followed by a crewed launch in November. Boeing now expects the vehicle to do its uncrewed test flight either later this year or in early 2019, according to a press call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon. Then, the first crewed test will occur in mid-2019. Additionally, Boeing was going to do another type of test at the end of this summer to try out the Starliner’s pad abort system, a setup that is meant to keep future passengers safe in case something goes wrong on the launchpad. Embedded underneath the spacecraft are four engines that can ignite and propel the Starliner far away from a malfunctioning rocket. Testing out this system won’t happen until spring 2019 now, after the uncrewed test flight.

Much of the delay seems to stem from a recent engine failure that occurred during a test in June. Boeing was conducting a test fire of the Starliner’s launch abort engines. Boeing says the engines ignited just fine. Yet during shutdown, several of the engine valves failed to close, leading to a propellant leak. There was no damage to the hardware being tested, and no one was injured. Boeing says that it is conducting an investigation into what happened and is making changes.

“We have a dedicated team of both ourselves and the contractor working diligently on those corrective actions,” John Mulholland, the vice president and program manager for Starliner, said during the press call today. He said that Boeing will employ both design and operational changes to make sure those valves fully close.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is also flying later than planned. Since January, SpaceX has been scheduled to do the first uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon in August, followed by a crewed flight in December. Now, the uncrewed test flight is slated for November 2018, and SpaceX is targeting the crewed flight for April. If these schedules hold, SpaceX seems to have a slight edge of sending people to the International Space Station before Boeing.

When asked how Boeing’s schedule might compare to SpaceX’s, Mulholland said the company is really only focused on its own timeline. “I really have no visibility into SpaceX progress or the fidelity of the SpaceX schedule,” Mulholland said. “Our entire focus is... to make sure we do everything we can to ensure a safe vehicle and meeting the schedule parameters that I’ve laid out.”

A Starliner engine test.
Image: Boeing

Delays were expected for the Commercial Crew program even before Boeing’s mishap occurred. Multiple reports from the Government Accountability Office predicted that the milestone flights for the program would fall behind. The GAO anticipates that SpaceX’s vehicle won’t be certified until December 2019 and Boeing’s vehicle won’t until February 2020. It’s unclear if Boeing’s failure will change the GAO’s assessment of the Commercial Crew timeline. But Boeing claims that its test program is 80 percent complete at this point.

In the midst of these updates, NASA also plans to announce the crew assignments for the first Commercial Crew flights this Friday, August 3rd. Now we know that those crews definitely won’t be flying this year.

Update August 2nd, 3:10PM ET: This story, originally published on August 1st, 2018, has been updated to include the new dates for SpaceX’s test flights.