Boeing’s Starliner Lags Behind As SpaceX Gears Up For 2nd Crew Dragon Mission

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeings CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard standing at the launch pad in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida ahead of a test in December 2019. Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

Last November, SpaceX successfully sent four astronauts to the International Space Station in its first operational Crew Dragon mission, under a NASA program aimed to regularly transport astronauts and payloads to the ISS and end the agency’s sole reliance on Russian rockets for human spaceflight since 2011.

In an interview this week, NASA’s head of human spaceflight said the SpaceX capsule, named Resilience, is doing “beautifully” as a space station extension and NASA is “very, very happy with how things are going” so far. SpaceX is expected to fly its next ISS mission, Crew-2, on April 20, using the same Crew Dragon spacecraft that flew two NASA astronauts in a demo test in May 2020.

Also in April, Boeing will test-fly an uncrewed CST-100 Starliner capsule, the spacecraft designed to fly the same ISS mission, in Houston.

Both Boeing and SpaceX are contractors under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a long-term effort to renew the agency’s retired space shuttle program and increase crew size on the ISS. NASA commissioned the two companies in 2014 to each build a reusable rocket-spacecraft system for transporting astronauts and payloads to the space station. SpaceX planned to use its workhorse Falcon 9 booster and a new capsule called Dragon 2, while Boeing planned to launch its own spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Despite the identical nature of their assignments, Boeing’s contract is almost twice as expensive as SpaceX’s. NASA agreed to pay SpaceX $2.5 billion for a spacecraft and six crewed round trips to the ISS. The agency committed to paying Boeing $4.3 billion for essentially the same mission and later added an extra $300 million to the contract, a 2019 audit revealed, to cover Boeing’s expense for an estimated 18-month gap between Starliner’s second and third mission.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Both companies ended up falling behind the original schedule they promised. But SpaceX delivered the project much earlier than Boeing. The Crew Dragon spacecraft was declared a success after it flew two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the ISS in a final test last May. By contrast, Boeing’s Starliner is still struggling to lift its first uncrewed test off the ground.

In December 2019, an uncrewed Starliner failed to reach the ISS and returned to Earth in a shortened test flight. Boeing has spent over a year since then fixing software glitches and addressing other technical concerns raised by NASA. Boeing has addressed 95 percent of the recommendations made by the company’s Orbital Flight Test review team based on the failed 2019 flight, NASA said in an update on February 17.

Its second attempt, scheduled no earlier than April 2, was originally planned for late March but had to be delayed due to the widespread power outages in Texas last week.

“With formal software tests completed, Boeing is continuing with flight preparations,” Boeing said in a statement last week. “We continue to ensure product safety of our spacecraft and we are addressing any emerging issues in a timely manner.” Boeing’s Starliner Lags Behind As SpaceX Gears Up For 2nd Crew Dragon Mission