For several years, SpaceX and Boeing were neck-and-neck in the race to send astronauts into space, but then Boeing encountered a few setbacks. That has left SpaceX as the sole private space firm launching both people and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing has been toiling throughout the pandemic to get its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft ready for a do-over test flight, and NASA believes that will happen next month.
The Starliner looks like a larger, more luxurious version of the Apollo command module. It has room for a crew of seven, but it has yet to carry anyone. In late 2019, Boeing attempted an uncrewed test similar to the one SpaceX aced several months before. A software glitch caused the spacecraft to end up in the wrong orbit, unable to rendezvous with the space station. Following this partial failure, NASA decided Boeing should attempt the validation flight again and formed an Independent Review Team to ensure Boeing made the necessary changes to the Starliner.
Progress was slow during the pandemic, allowing SpaceX to enjoy the prestige that comes from being the only private company flying humans to the ISS. The review team made recommendations related to operational improvements, software requirements, crew module communication, and organizational changes. NASA now reports that Boeing has addressed all the recommendations from the review team — even the non-mandatory ones.
In the coming weeks, NASA and Boeing will work to prepare for the OFT-2 mission, running simulated drills and checking over the spacecraft in detail. Starliner’s landing and recovery teams will also do on-site checks of at least one of the vehicle’s potential landing zones. NASA currently has OFT-2 on the books for 2:53 p.m. EDT on Friday, July 30. Fueling should be wrapped up this week, and then the Starliner will move to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-41. Unlike the Crew Dragon, which uses SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket, the Starliner will mate to a non-reusable ULA Atlas V.
During OFT-2, Starliner will have to fly to the station and use its unique vision-based navigation system to dock. It will carry 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of supplies. Starliner will spend between five and 10 days attached to the station before returning to Earth and landing in the western US. If this all goes well, Boeing will be able to move on to its crewed test flight as soon as the end of 2021. At that point, the Starliner will be certified for crew launches just like SpaceX. If there are any further glitches, however, that could spell disaster for Boeing’s Commercial Crew contract.