Boeing could not fly NASA astronauts until 2023, three years after the original plan.
Boeing's spaceship design has been plagued by technical issues and delays for many years. New hardware problems have forced Boeing's Starliner spaceship to be grounded for the remainder of the year. NASA still needs to see the Starliner spaceship fly uncrewed to the International Space Station (ISS), to prove that it can safely transport people.
According to NASA and Boeing officials, Starliner will not be ready for uncrewed flight until at least the second half of 2022. The spaceship will be able to fly its first astronauts only after that.
John Vollmer is Boeing's vice-president and program manager for Starliner. He said that Boeing could launch a test flight in 2022 with an astronaut crew.
He said Tuesday in a press conference that he liked to see six months between flights. "Something in that order."
This could make it possible for the crewed launch to reach 2023.
A picture of the CST-100 Starliner spaceship by Boeing orbiting Earth. Boeing
Boeing will still need to analyze the data from the mission and perform a series certification reports and tests, even after fixing the hardware problems and flying the uncrewed flight test flight. Boeing must also plan for other missions to the ISS. These missions don't allow much space on the station before winter 2022.
The preparations for the flight could take up to six months. SpaceX did not fly its first astronauts to NASA until one year after its uncrewed test flight. SpaceX is now preparing to launch its fourth crew, while Starliner remains grounded, nearly three years behind schedule.
The spaceship's propellant was corroded by moisture when it came into contact with water.
Boeing twice attempted and failed to reach the ISS.
Although the Starliner spaceship was launched into orbit in 2019, it was forced to land on its own without docking with the station because of software problems that caused it to run out of fuel. It took 18 months for the error to be fixed and prepared for another attempt.
Starliner was finally ready to take off on August 3 for a re-do flight test flight. But Boeing had to cancel the launch after it found that 13 valves in the propulsion system were not opening correctly.
Boeing engineers are working on Starliner propulsion systems valves at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Boeing
Boeing engineers believe they have identified the problem after returning the spaceship to the factory and troubleshooting for two months. The problem appears to be caused by moisture in the atmosphere. This water reacts with the dinitrogen-tetroxide propellant, forming nitric acid that corrodes the valves.
Boeing engineers now have to confirm their suspicions. They will run a CT scan on a few valves and then disassemble them. They then make minor adjustments to stop moisture from building up again inside the valves.
Kathy Lueders (associate administrator NASA's human spaceflight directorate) said that "this is obviously a disappointing date" after it became apparent that Boeing would not be flying anytime soon. This is yet another reason why demo missions are so important to us. These demo missions are used to ensure that we have the system in place before we assign our crews to these vehicles.
Two astronauts were forced to move to SpaceX after a 3-year delay by Boeing
Boeing prepares for launch with Starliner's spacecraft at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 2, 2019. Boeing
This is just one of the many problems that SpaceX and Boeing have faced in their quest to fly astronauts. NASA's Commercial Crew Program allowed both companies to develop their spaceships. According to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, NASA asked them to submit all evidence necessary to certify their flight systems by 2017.
However, both launch systems were behind schedule. In 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was uncrewed exploded at the launchpad. In 2018, Boeing discovered that its spaceship had a fuel leak.
NASA chose astronauts to crew the first spaceships' crewed missions in that year. Boeing announced its intention to fly its first astronauts in 2019
Boeing's spaceship has been delayed by software and hardware problems. NASA recently assigned two astronauts from Starliner missions to SpaceX, SpaceX's sixth crewed mission. They are now scheduled for launch next fall.