Boeing Co. aims to have its Starliner capsule ready for its first flight to the International Space Station with astronauts on board around March, with a long-delayed launch following NASA approval.
(Bloomberg) — Boeing Co. aims to have its Starliner capsule ready for its first flight to the International Space Station with astronauts on board around March, with a long-delayed launch following NASA approval.
Boeing’s target hinges on a successful high-altitude drop test of parachute upgrades, currently slated for around November, as well as satisfying other crucial technical and safety concerns both internally and at NASA, the company told reporters on Monday, confirming a Bloomberg News report.
Starliner’s future has been uncertain, with NASA and Boeing officials in June delaying its launch indefinitely. Repeated delays have heaped pressure on Boeing, with a fresh $257 million accounting charge unveiled on July 26 bringing its total cost overruns to more than $1.4 billion.
Shares of Boeing closed up 3% in New York, the second-highest gain among the 30-member Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Read more: NASA, Boeing Indefinitely Delay Crewed Starliner Flight Test
The delays have also raised concerns about NASA’s goal of having multiple lifelines to the International Space Station. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully flew its first astronauts under the Commercial Crew Program to the ISS in 2020, and has sent crews to the space station several times since. SpaceX’s next mission to ISS is slated for Aug. 25.
A successful crewed test-flight would ultimately clear the way for Starliner to ferry cargo and astronauts to the ISS, but flight readiness does not necessarily mean a launch date will be available.
NASA has not yet set a launch date and Boeing will work with the agency to find a time that works best depending on traffic at Cape Canaveral and at the International Space Station, Mark Nappi, Starliner’s program manager, told a press conference.
During its June press conference, NASA and Boeing said they had discovered two new concerns with Starliner, including issues with the vehicle’s parachutes and flammable tape used to wrap around wiring harnesses.
The high-altitude drop of the capsule in November will test parachute upgrades engineers believe resolve potential safety risks flagged earlier, Boeing said. Upgrades include a modified fabric joint with an improved safety margin and higher-strength fibers, the company said.
Boeing is trying to resolve the flammability issue by eliminating the acrylic tape in some areas of Starliner, or covering it up elsewhere. That could mitigate fire risks as the tape’s glue, which is flammable, needs oxygen to ignite.
For Starliner’s launch to happen, Boeing’s work would have to be completed and approved in parallel with the many other standard but elaborate preparations emblematic of space travel, any of which could throw off the schedule, aerospace experts say.
The Starliner upgrades come as Boeing’s defense and space division struggles with worker turnover, parts shortages and inflation, particularly on fixed-price contracts that it won last decade with bids that were near break-even.
Starliner’s repeated delays and cost overruns have raised questions over whether Boeing might scrap the program all-together — a prospect executives have repeatedly rejected.
“We prioritize safety, and we’re taking whatever time is required,” Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun told analysts on a July 26 earnings call. “We’re confident in that team and committed to getting it right.”
–With assistance from Julie Johnsson.
(Updates with shares, Boeing and NASA comments)
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