The bad news for Boeing has dripped out in a constant stream, day by day.
There were revelations that it didn’t do enough to train pilots to a system failure in its 737-airplane line that led to a crash last year in Indonesia and then another this month in Ethiopia, killing everyone on board both flights, a total of 346 people.
Then NASA’s administrator said the agency is considering sidelining the massive rocket Boeing is help building because of how far behind schedule it is. And now, the agency is about to announce another major delay in a separate high-profile program: the spacecraft Boeing is building to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.
The latest date for the first test of the Starliner capsule was to be in April, which was already pushed back repeatedly. Now that first flight — a test mission without any astronauts on board — is going to be delayed to at least August, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation.
That, in turn, would push the first flight with humans on board to no earlier than November, but some said the company may be forced to push the flight into 2020 if they discover more problems with the spacecraft. Reuters first reported Starliner’s new schedule.
The delays put pressure additional pressure on Boeing to deliver in part because its main competitor, SpaceX, which is also under contract to fly NASA’s astronauts to the station, had its first test flight earlier this month. And it appeared to go flawlessly.
There is also pressure to get astronauts flying on the companies’ spacecraft because NASA has been forced to pay Russia for rides to the space station since NASA’s space shuttle was retired in 2011. Both SpaceX and Boeing have had delays, forcing NASA to look at the possibility of buying more seats from Russia at a cost of more than $80 million each.
The version of the Starliner that flies without people will be as similar as possible as the spacecraft that eventually does have humans on board, officials said. So Boeing hopes there won’t be a lot of work left in between the two flights, allowing it to fly its crewed mission this year. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has a number of issues to work through between flights, officials said, so the time in between flights could be greater, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said.
“I think there’s going to be less time between the uncrewed vehicle for Boeing and crewed vehicle for Boeing and longer time between [flights for] SpaceX,” he recently told CNBC. “Which means whoever gets to fly that first crew — we don’t know right now. But I will tell you I’m highly confident it will be before the end of 2019.”
NASA is also expected to announce soon that when Boeing does finally fly a three-member crew to the station in its first test flight with humans on board, the astronauts will stay for up to almost seven months in what NASA is calling a “long-duration” mission. Previously, the astronauts on the crewed test flight were only supposed to stay on the station for about two weeks.
NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract in 2014 to build Starliner. But it has run into numerous problems. Last year, during a test of its emergency abort system, officials discovered a propellant leak that has required it to redesign valves in the system.
The Government Accountability Office also found an issue with the abort system that could possibly cause it to “tumble, which could pose a threat to the crews’ safety.” Boeing has said it is on its way to having the problem fixed.
Part of the reason the company is pushing the launch date back is because there is a sensitive national security launch, scheduled for June, that will occupy the launchpad and related facilities for weeks, officials said, forcing Boeing to push into August.
The news of the Starliner delay comes as Bridenstine said the agency was looking at sidelining its Space Launch System rocket that Boeing is helping build in an effort to speed up a mission to send a spacecraft in orbit around the moon.
SLS, as the rocket is known, has also faced repeated delays, and a government watchdog recently took aim at Boeing, the prime contractor on the project, saying it has already spent $5.3 billion and is expected to burning through the remaining funds by early this year, three years ahead of schedule and without delivering a single rocket stage.