Apr 7, 2020 - Science

Boeing to re-fly an uncrewed test of Starliner capsule

Miriam Kramer, author of Space

Boeing's Starliner landing in December 2019. Photo: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Boeing has decided to re-fly an uncrewed test of its Starliner capsule after a troubled mission in December.

Why it matters: The decision delays Boeing's plans to fly people to space from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

  • It also puts the company firmly behind SpaceX, which plans to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station as early as May.

Details: Boeing announced the redo on Monday evening, putting to rest speculation from others in the industry that they might press ahead with a crewed flight despite failing to dock with the space station in December.

  • A series of issues prevented the Starliner's planned docking and sparked an investigation by an independent board that recommended 61 corrective measures to the company.
  • "Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer," Boeing said in a statement.
  • The company expects to re-fly the uncrewed mission sometime this fall, though no date has been announced.
"This is exactly why NASA decided to select two partners in the commercial crew effort. Having dissimilar redundancy is key in NASA’s approach to maintaining a crew and cargo aboard the space station and to keeping our commitments to international partners. It also allows our private industry partners to focus on crew safety rather than schedule."
NASA said in a statement

The big picture: Years of delays have pushed back NASA's plans to get Boeing and SpaceX flying astronauts to the space station, forcing the space agency to rely on Russian rockets and capsules.

  • This year was expected to mark the big moment when both companies would start flying humans for the first time.
  • While SpaceX is still publicly on track toward its first human launch in May, it's not yet clear how the pandemic might affect its plans, and it's looking less likely that Boeing will be able to stage its own crewed flight before the year is out.

Go deeper: The coronavirus pandemic is setting back the space industry

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