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Boeing to attempt second Starliner test flight after bungled debut mission

Boeing says that it will refly its Starliner passenger spacecraft without a crew in what will be its second attempt to demonstrate that the vehicle is ready to carry astronauts.

The debut orbital flight of the Starliner ended in failure in December 2019 after a software issue prevented it from reaching the International Space Station (ISS). But this week the company said it wants to try again.

“We are committed to the safety of the men and women who design, build, and ultimately will fly on the Starliner just as we have on every crewed mission to space,” Boeing said in a statement on Monday, April 6. “We have chosen to refly our Orbital Flight Test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system. 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 that when the spacecraft achieves a successful test mission, including docking with the ISS, it will then look toward flying astronauts to the space station.

December’s mission was supposed to last for a week, with several days spent docked with the ISS. But two errors linked to the Starliner’s software resulted in the mission lasting just two days.

The initial software problem concerned a timing issue that resulted in the autonomous systems positioning the spacecraft incorrectly, making it unable to reach the correct orbit to take it to the space station.

The second issue, which was discovered while the Starliner was in space, could have caused erroneous thruster firings and, ultimately, catastrophic spacecraft failure if it wasn’t for the quick actions of engineers on the ground. Their speedy response meant the capsule was able to return to Earth in one piece, landing safely in New Mexico.

Following an investigation into the failed flight, NASA, which is using the Starliner as part of its Commercial Crew Program, noted 61 “corrective actions” that Boeing needs to make before its next test flight. Some of these focus on the software errors suffered by the Starliner, while others involve how software testing is carried out, and how Boeing’s software and hardware teams collaborate.

A date for the Starliner’s second test flight hasn’t been announced, though reports suggest it’s unlikely to happen until at least the fall. If the mission is a success, the Starliner’s next outing could be with astronauts on board.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has been making good progress with its own spacecraft that’s also designed to transport astronauts between Earth and the ISS. In fact, the first crewed mission using the Crew Dragon spacecraft is expected to take place as early as May 2020. The feat will be mark the end of U.S. reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program, with NASA sending astronauts into space from American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

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Trevor Mogg
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