Boeing clears way for second test flight of its Starliner spacecraft

Boeing has cleared the way for a second orbital test flight of its Starliner spacecraft.

The Seattle-based aerospace giant said this week it has now completed a formal requalification of the Starliner’s flight software, clearing up issues that caused the first test flight to fail in December 2019.

Assuming there are no hiccups going forward, it means the capsule will be heading to space aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket on Orbital Flight Test-2 in March 2021.

The uncrewed test flight will include a rendezvous with the International Space Station before the spacecraft returns to Earth. If that goes smoothly, a crewed flight to the space station will take place later this year.

Teams at the Starliner’s Houston-based Avionics and Software Integration Lab and other parts of the U.S. carried out a comprehensive review of the capsule’s flight software, as well as the process by which mission modifications or upgrades will be formally qualified in the future, Boeing said.

Work included static and dynamic lab tests that included “hundreds of cases ranging from single command verifications to comprehensive end-to-end mission scenarios” with the core software.

“The work this team put into exhaustively wringing out our software is a defining moment for the program,” said John Vollmer, Starliner vice president and program manager. “We’re smarter as a team having been through this process, and most importantly, we’re smarter as a human spaceflight community.”

The first test flight in December 2019 was aborted when the Starliner failed to reach the correct orbit to take it to the space station, though it did manage to safely return to Earth.

A subsequent NASA investigation uncovered a slew of software issues with the Starliner’s systems, prompting the space agency to report numerous essential “corrective actions” that Boeing has been working to implement, culminating in this week’s announcement.

Boeing is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership combining NASA’s experience with new technology created by private companies, with the goal of increasing the availability of space travel. The program has already succeeded in returning human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil via recent SpaceX missions to the space station, with crewed missions to the moon, and even Mars, also planned.

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