Boeing’s Starliner Flight to ISS Faces More Delays as SpaceX’s Lead Widens

Boeing's Starliner test was delayed twice in a week, due to unexpected engineering problems and an accident on ISS.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeings CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard is seen at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on December 18, 2019. Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

Boeing’s long-awaited Starliner flight to the International Space Station is facing one delay after another. The flight, officially known as NASA’s Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission, is Boeing’s second orbital test of the reusable space vehicle designed for regularly transporting astronauts and payloads to the ISS.

Launch was originally scheduled on Friday at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, but got scrubbed at the last minute due to an accident on the ISS.

On Thursday, a newly attached space station module launched by Russia inadvertently started firing its thrusters, briefly pushing the space station into a spin before ground controllers got it back under control. NASA needed the whole Friday to inspect the ISS to make sure that it’s ready for new missions.

Boeing’s Starliner launch was thus postponed by four days—to make room for classified military operations at Cape Canaveral over the weekend—to Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday morning, Boeing said the flight was postponed again due to “unexpected valve position indications in the propulsion system.” Boeing said it may try again on Wednesday, pending weather conditions at Cape Canaveral.

Starliner is a competing project of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Despite having received nearly twice as much in NASA funding, Boeing’s spacecraft development significantly lags behind that of SpaceX.

Crew Dragon began operational missions in November 2020. Since then, it has sent eight astronauts to the ISS. Later this month, four astronauts currently working on the space station are expected to return to Earth in a Dragon spacecraft launched in April.

Boeing’s last orbital test took place in December 2019. An uncrewed Starliner failed to reach the space station and returned to Earth in a shortened flight. It took Boeing more than a year to analyze what went wrong, fix software glitches and address other technical concerns raised by NASA to get Starlink ready to fly again.

Although it’s technically a test flight, the OFT-2 mission will carry more than 400 pounds of cargo and crew supplies to the ISS. The Starliner capsule will stay docked at the space station for about a week before flying back to Earth. Boeing’s Starliner Flight to ISS Faces More Delays as SpaceX’s Lead Widens