Boeing Delays First CST-100 Starliner Operational Flight to December 2018

Starliner structural test article. (Credit: Boeing)
Starliner structural test article. (Credit: Boeing)

Score one for the NASA Inspector General (IG).

On Sept. 1, the space agency watchdog released an audit of the Commercial Crew Program that found it was unlikely either Boeing or SpaceX would begin flying crews to the International Space Station on an operational basis until the end of 2018.

Boeing has become the first company to validate that finding. The company has delayed its first operational flight of its CST-100 Starliner by an additional six months to December 2018, Aviation Week reports.

The new schedule is:

June 2018: Flight test without crew
August 2018: Flight test with crew
December 2018: First operational flight

John Mulholland, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for commercial programs in space explorations, told Aviation Week the delays have resulted from multiple challenges.

Three main causes have been identified by Boeing for the slide, all of which the company says are now either resolved, understood or in the process of being corrected. These include development production delays from the supply chain “which are mostly over and stabilizing now, as we get into qualification testing of the first uncrewed flight test,” says Mulholland.

A second, more recent issue that occurred in September, was a production flaw that forced the scrapping of the lower dome—one of two main structural elements along with the upper dome—of the crew module pressure shell for Spacecraft 2, the vehicle to be used in the first crewed flight test.

“It was overmachined due to an issue with the hold-down tooling. Each is cut out from one piece of aluminum that we form into shape and mill out pockets. But the hold-down fixture was not rigid enough and they got some movement, which was not detected and milled through.

“Luckily we formed a spare dome, but this only happened 2.5 weeks ago, and we realized there was an error in it when cooling flow in the pockets drained through,” he adds. The domes are manufactured using a weldless spin forming process, but then machined elsewhere into a honeycomb-shape for reduced weight and increased strength.

An additional part of the holdup has been prompted by issues with qualification tests of minor components. “There are lots of composite parts—some with high complexity—and a design which caused difficulty in manufacturing,” says Mulholland. “We worked our way through these issues but it took a couple more months than anticipated.”

SpaceX said its goal is to begin Crew Dragon flight tests in 2017. However, the NASA IG audit found that SpaceX’s schedule is likely to experience delays similar to the ones Boeing has experienced.

NASA faces a decision in the next couple of months as to whether to purchase additional seats on Russian Soyuz transports for 2019 to hedge against further commercial crew delays. The space agency has purchased seats through 2018.

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