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.

Read the full story.

  • windbourne

    Penny wise, pound foolish at CONgress.
    We will now have to waste another .6 B on Putin’s space.
    Oh well, have to give Putin credit. He is brighter than the idiots that control CONgress.

  • ThomasLMatula

    What a surprise…

    Meanwhile the Tortoise keeps moving forward.

    Imagine, the Blue Origin capsule went 7 times into space even surviving an abort and the failure of the first New Shepard flight. Now that is one well built spacecraft!

  • Terry Rawnsley

    While I’m a big fan of Blue Origin and look forward to further progress, they are nowhere close to manned orbital spaceflight yet.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Pretty lame blaming Congress for the setbacks suffered by both Old Space and New Space. Both Boeing and SpaceX are private companies with access to private capital. Either could have tapped those sources if that was all that was delaying their projects. I haven’t heard either company complain that they weren’t receiving the money owed under their contracts so it seems that delays are actually attributable to inexperience and over-optimistic projections.

  • se jones

    “…production delays from the supply chain”
    “…lots of composite parts—some with high complexity’

    Oh that’s just typical. They’ve got too much of engineers “playing in the sandbox”.

    What the nation needs is a 737-MAX tech s/c, but Boing can’t resist building a 787 Dreamliner tech s/c.

  • Lee

    “but then machined elsewhere into a honeycomb-shape for reduced weight and increased strength.”

    Well, one out of two isn’t bad. You never *increase* strength by *removing* material. But it does reduce the weight…

  • I saw that too. It should have read “for reduced weight while MAINTAINING strength.”

  • I’m always afraid of composites unless they are flat plates or round tubes, even COPVs make me a little nervous. High-performance composites (not fiberglass car bodies) are the material of the future, I just don’t know how far into the future that is! 🙂

    But seriously, turning to composites for weight savings, is a risky business. The specific stiffness is so much worse than metal that you often have to overdesign the part and it comes out to be the same weight anyway! Joining between composite and metal parts also sucks. Once you go to a high performance material (250-300ksi steels, 7075 Al with the proper temper, or titanium 6Al4V) there’s just not a lot of places you can go from there. You do the trades and you just can’t get much more out of the system.

  • savuporo

    If these funded opportunities to design and build new stuff come along once in a liftetime, of course natural reaction is to cram _everything_ into it.

    If the plan from the outset was to develop a series of incrementally improved vehicles, maybe things would be a tad better.

    A program/prodcut managements ability to say “this is a next version feature” does wonders for velocity of development.

  • JamesG

    Boeing is a public company and neither have limitless resources to spend on projects.
    Both have been “throttled” by NASA delays in signing off and paying on milestones.

    Its not very good business sense to put your own money into a project when the customer is supposed to be paying the bills for development. The contractors are following the letter of the contract and doing as much and little as NASA is allowing.

  • JamesG

    “Black Aluminum” thinking?

  • 🙂

    Our head structural analyst says if we call it “black aluminum”, she can call metals “shiny carbon.”

  • Lee

    In our shop (and others I know of), we refer to aluminum as “shiny wood”, because you can use routers and table saws to cut it lol.

  • Saturn13

    Maybe NASA has made a mistake and Dream Chaser would be better. At least Shotwell said Sunday that the F9 explosion was not technical, but business. What does that mean? An insurance scam and the launch crew was paid to over pump the helium tank. Maybe not chilling the tank correctly. Ponzi scheme? How much return does Musk says he will give investors. Maybe one of the investors was anti-Jewish and wanted that sat blown up. On purpose or the 80 hr week? Would Musk and Shotwell in jail slow things down? So to have 2 different systems and one with return NASA may need Athena-3 and Orion lite. Yes I know. Crazy. But they do run through my mind when I hear business. O-ATK has stock. It is known what they are doing. Not much is known about SpaceX. OK you can yell at me now. I hope The FBI is talking to that launch crew.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    Just stop please, it’s embarrassing to read and this isn’t CSI

  • therealdmt

    Well this sucks.

    I hope commercial crew isn’t the type of thing that is perpetually “2 years away”.

    For a variety of reasons (relations with Russia, everything depending on only the Soyuz system never failing, rising costs for using Soyuz, the limited lifespan of the ISS itself [and thus the whole reason for being of commercial crew]), there should be a sense of urgency about this program.

    I can’t image SpaceX’s dates won’t be affected by their recent “fast fire”, but I’m sure pulling for them to stay as close to schedule as possible

  • Hug Doug

    The worst wrench into their schedule is the loss of LC-40. Hopefully they will have it repaired and operational again before any Dragon v2 flights start.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    Aren’t Dragon V2 flights coming out of 39A anyways?

  • windbourne

    Actually, it is meant to be incremental.
    In a lot of ways, dragon us doing it right.

  • Hug Doug

    Yes, but without SLC-40, all commercial launches must be done out of LC-39A, as well.

  • windbourne

    So, Boeing is inexperienced?

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    NASA contracts come first, and I think SpaceX has bigger issues than launch pad availability with regards to their backlog. They have increased their launch cadence on one pad sufficiently to make a serious dent in that manifest so making sure the 2 COTS and 2 CC missions fly is only occupying 4 launches. Less if NASA decides to exercise the additional cargo payload mass capability by only launching 4 astronauts instead of 7

  • Hug Doug

    The other thing is they will need to be working on LC-39A to put in the equipment that they will need for crew access, and if they are constantly launching commercial missions, that timeline will be impacted.

    Also, with a new capsule there’ll be new issues that will take time to sort through, which could impact their commercial launch schedule.

    The decision to launch 4 astronauts + some cargo has already been made.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Well, they certainly have more experience than SpaceX. 🙂

  • Terry Rawnsley

    By “private” companies I meant that neither were owned by the government and limited to government funding. If NASA dictated changes to the vehicles, the companies would be afforded time to make the necessary changes. If Boeing is only interested in building a vehicle under contract, and NASA made changes that resulted in delay, then that is their prerogative and the vehicle will be delayed. The fact remains that Boeing does have access to private capital if the board of directors authorizes borrowing. Congress still is not responsible for the delay. SpaceX likewise cannot claim lack of access to funds. Crew Dragon is the proving ground for “beyond LEO” vehicles that Musk intends to build anyway. He also owns the company and can borrow whatever he can afford. Since he needs to build a crewed vessel anyway, there is no purpose served by delay (except safety.) It seems that his particular problem stems from inexperience and over-optimism.

  • JamesG

    And both know that neither are going to have their contracts cancelled because NASA has no alternative (other than keep buying rides from the Russians). So… yeah, its a program management issue, and not from Big B or SX.

  • se jones

    “shiny carbon.”

    That’s funny right there.
    Shiny carbon, somthing new in my lexicon that’s sure to be a big hit in DR meetings!