Boeing Starliner Commercial Crew Delay: ~3 Years

Boeing’s first crewed Starliner finished initial production at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. and is readied for its cross-country trip. (Credit: Boeing)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On March 26, Vice President Mike Pence went to Huntsville, Ala., to declare that the Trump Administration would use “any means necessary” to accelerate the return of American astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024 — four years earlier than planned.

Pence was putting Huntsville-based Marshall Space Flight Center and prime contractor Boeing on notice to get the delayed, over budget Space Launch System (SLS) being built to accomplish that goal back on track. If they didn’t, the administration would find other rockets to do the job.

In his effort to accelerate the Artemis lunar program, however, Pence unintentionally contributed to delays in NASA’s behind schedule effort to launch astronauts to a much closer location: low Earth orbit.

Boeing originally planned to fly its Starliner spacecraft on an automated orbital flight test (OFT-1) to the International Space Station (ISS) in the spring. However, the flight has slipped about eight months and is now set for Dec. 17.

A source familiar with the program who requested anonymity said one of the reasons for the slip has been Boeing’s need to focus more resources on the struggling SLS program. With most of the work done for the first orbital test, the company has transferred personnel over to the heavy-lift booster program.

The move has slowed work on Starliner, including the flow of documentation to NASA officials who have to sign off on the launch, the source said.

Boeing’s greater focus on SLS has not been the only reason for the delays. SpaceNews reported that scheduling issues and technical concerns have contributed to the schedule slip.

Boeing had planned to fly OFT earlier this year, but announced in April it was delaying the launch, then scheduled for May, until later in the summer because of a tight schedule and a conflict with another Atlas 5 launch.

Since then, [Boeing Vice President John] Mulholland said in an interview here that the company had worked through some technical issues with the spacecraft that he described as “normal learning” with the spacecraft, and not more serious issues, like problems with the propulsion system in the spacecraft’s service module encountered last year. “There were a few little final discoveries that you only get on those final integrated tests,” he said.

The Starliner for OFT is in the final stages of assembly, with only a couple major components, like a heat shield, yet to be added. Mulholland said the spacecraft should be fully assembled as soon as this weekend, after which there will be additional tests and fueling before it’s transported to Space Launch Complex 41 to be integrated with the Atlas.

Back in July, Chris Ferguson — the former NASA astronaut turned Boeing executive who will command the first crewed Starliner flight to ISS — expressed confidence that the vehicle’s flight test to the station without astronauts would occur as early as September.

But, the month came and went without a flight as the schedule slipped further into the fall.

The OFT-1 mission will be preceded by a test of Starliner’s emergency abort system at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on Nov. 4. The system is designed to save the lives of the crew in the event of a malfunction of the Atlas V booster. Starliner lands on the ground under parachutes and air bags.

If all goes well with the abort and OFT-1 flights, Ferguson will command the first crewed test flight with two NASA astronauts in 2020 for a long-duration stay on the ISS.

Jeff Foust reports in The Space Review that Boeing and NASA are aiming to conduct the launch early in the year.

Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, and John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing’s space exploration division, both said in a panel discussion that they expected to be able to fly Starliner’s crewed test flight, with two NASA astronauts and Boeing commercial astronaut Chris Ferguson on board, in the first quarter of 2020.

However, Parabolic Arc‘s source said that a first quarter flight appears unlikely. Before the astronauts can fly, NASA and Boeing need to review OFT-1 flight data, resolve any anomalies that occurred during the mission, and clear all the paperwork. Three months is not a lot of time to accomplish all those tasks.

NASA is under pressure to resume launches of American astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle retired in July 2011. The space agency has been purchasing seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at ever increasing prices for eight years; the present cost is about $85 million apiece.

NASA expenditures on Soyuz seats as of September 2016. Additional seats have been purchase since this table was published. (Credit: NASA OIG)

NASA’s supply of seats is set to run out next year. To avoid not having any U.S. astronauts aboard the space station, NASA is considering purchasing at least one additional Soyuz seat.

In addition to paying billions of dollars to the Russians, NASA has not been able to utilize ISS to its full capability. Starliner and the Crew Dragon spacecraft that SpaceX is developing will allow the space agency to expand the station’s crew complement from six to seven, with one astronaut devoting full-time attention to research.

About 3 Years Behind Schedule

Crew Dragon and Starliner at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Both Boeing and SpaceX are running about three years behind schedule. Crewed flight tests to the space station that were originally predicted for 2017 have now slipped to 2020.

There have been a number of reasons for the delays, including: years of under funding by Congress; additional milestones and requirements added by NASA; the need to meet strict requirements and standards; delays by the space agency in reviewing documentation; and technical problems discovered during testing (“this is why we test”).

Boeing has experienced a number of setbacks during development. A fuel leak delayed ground qualification of the engines used in the escape system by about one year. Like SpaceX, Boeing has also grappled with issues with its parachutes.

The table below shows Boeing’s milestone under the contract the company signed in September 2014 for the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The table also includes milestones that were subsequently added, split or canceled by 2017.

Boeing Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCAP) Milestones
No.DescriptionOriginal Contracted Estimated Completion Date
Milestone Estimated Completion Date
1Certification Baseline Review. A review to ensure baseline requirements identified are in line with NASA’s guidance; identify the current Crew Transportation System design baseline; define the plan and schedule to complete design, development, test, evaluation, and certification for the Crew Transportation System design, production, and operations; and define top safety, technical, cost and schedule risks.September-October 2014 
2Ground Segment Critical Design Review. A review to determine that maturity of the ground segment is appropriate to support proceeding with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration, and test.October 2014
3Phase 2 Safety Review – Boeing Internal Review (Phase II Safety Review – Part B). Review of the hazard reports/analyses, including cause identification, development of controls, and specific safety verification methods.December 2014 
4Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B – NASA Safety Technical Review Board Readiness Review (Integrated Systems). Split milestone from the Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B (Integrated Systems) milestone. February 2015
5Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B – NASA Safety Technical Review Board 80% Completion (Integrated System). Split milestone from the Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B (Integrated Systems) milestone. June 2015
6Delta Integrated Critical Design Review. A review to determine that maturity of the design across launch segment, spacecraft segment, and ground segment is appropriate to proceed to assembly, integration, and test activities.January 2015 
7Launch Segment Critical Design Review. Split milestone from the Integrated Critical Design Review. May 2015
8Qualification Test Vehicle Production Readiness Review. A review to verify that facilities, processes, and contingency plans are ready to begin spacecraft assembly operations.March 2015 
9Checkout and Control System Activation/ Validation Tests Complete. Provide quick-look report briefing of Checkout and Control System activation and validation testing documenting test results and open work required for system to be ready to support Qualification Test Vehicle acceptance testing.July 2015 
10Qualification Test Vehicle Integrated Readiness Review. A review to ensure test hardware, test plans, procedures, facilities, support equipment, and any required test support software are progressing in development to support planned test activities.August 2015 
11Structural Test Article Test Readiness Review Part 1. A review to ensure the test article is progressing in development.April 2015 
12Structural Test Article Test Readiness Review Part 2. Split milestone from Structural Test Article Test Readiness Review Part 1. February 2016
13Flight Software Demonstration Nominal Launch, Docking and De-Orbit. A demonstration of the spacecraft flight software’s ability to autonomously perform the mission for a nominal launch, rendezvous, docking, undocking, and de-orbit sequence.October 2015 
14Orbital Flight Test Configuration Performance & Weight Status Report. A review of preliminary report that includes launch vehicle configuration, Spacecraft configuration, integrated flight vehicle weight, performance estimate, and performance margins for the flight test mission.December 2015 
15Mission Control Center Integrated Simulation System Acceptance Review. A review of preliminary report that includes launch vehicle configuration, Spacecraft configuration, integrated flight vehicle weight, performance estimate, and performance margins for the flight test mission.January 2016 
Qualification Test Vehicle Test Readiness Review. A review to verify all requirements changes are complete, test article as-built configuration, test procedures are complete and approved, facilities and support equipment readiness to support test, all personnel have the required training, and review test based hazards to ensure controls are incorporated. (Canceled)April 2016
Ground Verification Test and Environmental Qualification Test, Test Readiness Review: Replaced the Qualification Test Vehicle Integrated Readiness Review, per Boeing’s request. A review to ensure readiness to start Ground Verification Test and Environmental Qualification Test by verifying all requirements changes are complete, targeted test article as-built configurations will support objectives of tests, facilities and support equipment readiness to support test, all personnel supporting have the required training, and review of test based hazards to ensure proper controls are being incorporated. August 2016
17Integrated Parachute System Drop Tests 1 & 2 Complete. A complete integrated parachute drop test that will validate parachute system deployment sequence, timing and performance in preparation for the Pad Abort Test.
June 2016 
18Orbital Flight Test Flight Operations Review. A review to evaluate and baseline flight operations products to ensure the safe and accurate implementation of mission requirements.
August 2016 
19Spacecraft Servicing Operational Readiness Review. A review to demonstrate the readiness of ground support facilities and personnel to execute the planned objectives and requirements of flight and stage.November 2016 
20ISS Design Certification Review (Delivery Milestone). A review to demonstrate that the Crew Transportation System and operations meet all applicable requirements; demonstrate schedule performance; and define top safety, technical, cost, and schedule risks.November 2016 
21Service Module Hot Fire Launch Abort Test Complete. A complete launch abort engine firings to validate propulsion system performance in preparation for Pad Abort Test.September 2016 
22ISS Software Interface Control Document – Boeing Internal Implementation Plan for Engineering Release 8.0/ER 9.0. Milestone added due to NASA imposed software upgrades. July 2016
23Interim Review of Water/Land Landing Qualification. Milestone added at NASA’s request to conduct a review of the water/land landing qualification tests to ensure they are progressing and to incorporate any deviations of the plans that may be warranted. October 2016
24ER 8.0 Release: Milestone added due to NASA imposed software upgrades. November 2016
25Pad Abort Test Complete. A review of quick look report on completion of Pad Abort Test.December 2016 
26Orbital Flight Test Flight Test Readiness Review. A review that demonstrates readiness to conduct an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test and defines a risk baseline for flight test activities.January 2017 
27Crewed Flight Test Design Certification Review. A review of the final system qualification performance and associated analyses to support Verification Closure Notices closures that were exceptions at the ISS Design Certification Review and review all open actions.March 2017 
28Crewed Flight Test Flight Test Readiness Review. A review to demonstrate readiness to conduct a crewed flight test and define risk baseline for crewed flight test activities.April 2017 
29Operational Readiness Review. A review to demonstrate that the actual Crew Transportation System characteristics and procedures used in operations reflect the deployed state of the System. The review evaluates all project and support hardware, software, personnel, and procedures to ensure flight and associated ground system are in compliance with requirements.July 2017 
30ER 9.0 Release. Milestone added due to NASA imposed software upgrades. April 2017
31Boeing Internal Payload Fault Isolation and Telemetry Implementation Plan. A plan to ensure NASA imposed hardware and software changes related to the Payload Control Unit are ready to be executed by the teams. May 2016
32Payload Control Unit and Payload Telemetry Modification Delta Critical Design Review. Perform a Delta Critical Design Review meeting focused on the design closure of all modified equipment and whether system performance is within certified limits. This review will encompass, at a minimum, the Payload Control Unit, harnesses, Ethernet cables, and software modifications. November 2016
33Payload Control Unit Modification Install Readiness Review. A review to ensure all aspects of the modification are ready for installation, assembly, integration, and test. The software, equipment, and production planning needed to modify the vehicle will be reviewed to ensure the modification can move ahead without the risk of rework. September 2017
34Certification Review (Delivery Milestone). A review in which the contractor provides evidence that the Crew Transportation System has met all NASA requirements and provides documentation of the crew safety and mission assurance risks.August 2017 

There were 23 milestones on the original schedule. That number grew to 33 by 2017. The table shows 34 milestones, but one of them — No. 16: Qualification Test Vehicle Test Readiness Review — was canceled.

The crucial pad abort test scheduled for early November is running nearly three years behind schedule. Boeing originally hoped to conduct it December 2016.

The flight test review for the automated mission to ISS was planned for January 2017. The flight would likely have taken place the following month based on Boeing’s plan to conduct a design certification review for the crewed mission in March 2017.

Boeing originally scheduled the flight test review for the crewed mission in April 2017. The subsequent flight would likely have taken place in May or June, followed by the operational readiness review in July.

The crewed mission was originally intended to be a short duration stay. Thus, certification of Starliner to carry crews on a commercial basis would have taken place in August 2017 after several months of data analysis and consultations.

Because there is neither a launch date nor mission duration for the first crew flight next year, it’s not clear when this milestone will be accomplished.