Boeing is the world’s largest aerospace company, a major US defense contractor and the titan of a global aviation duopoly. A few years ago, the idea that it would dominate the commercial space was a no-brainer, and companies like SpaceX, a relatively young company that relies on a strategy of going fast and breaking things, would erase before the balanced and experienced movement. Boeing.
This, however, did not materialize.
Errors, delays and failures hampered the development of the spacecraft. There was a botched test flight, software glitches, sticky valves, and a lawsuit involving a contractor executive who allegedly lost his leg during a Starliner test.
After initially scrutinizing SpaceX more closely than Boeing, officials later said they regretted that many of Starliner’s problems slipped through the cracks. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s relatively new entrant to the spaceflight business, has finally beaten Boeing to the launch pad. The company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has now logged six astronaut launches for NASA since entering service in 2020.
Meanwhile, Boeing is still trying to pass an uncrewed test flight. The company will make its second attempt this week, hoping a flawless performance will mend its image as a fallen star of manned spaceflight.
The controversies surrounding Starliner have also added to other issues within Boeing’s commercial aircraft division that have eroded the company’s once solid image in recent years.
Here’s a look back at Starliner’s tough past.
In 2014, NASA awarded fixed-price contracts — meaning the space agency would only pay the initial agreed price and not a penny more — to Boeing and SpaceX. The move cemented their niches as companies that would return NASA astronauts to space under the Commercial Crew program. Boeing’s awards totaled $4.2 billion, a significant markup over SpaceX’s $2.6 billion, although the company said that was because SpaceX had already received millions for development of an unmanned version of his Dragon vehicle.
Although both spacecraft were to send astronauts into space a few years later, as the end of the decade approached, it became clear that SpaceX was ahead of Boeing.
When the company’s first uncrewed orbital flight test, dubbed OFT-1, hit the launch pad in December 2019, SpaceX had already beaten it by six months.
And almost immediately after Starliner launched on December 20, 2019, it was clear something was wrong.
Later, it was revealed that Starliner’s internal clock was off by 11 hours, causing the spacecraft to misfire and deflect, NASA and Boeing officials told reporters. Starliner was forced to make an early return to Earth.
Months later, a second serious software problem was revealed, with a government security official saying it could have caused a “catastrophic failure”. However, Boeing (BA) was able to identify and correct the error before it affected Starliner’s behavior.
Boeing agreed to fix the issues and pay for a second uncrewed test flight attempt, setting aside nearly half a billion dollars. Months of troubleshooting, safety reviews and investigations followed the test flight.
Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who left the government astronaut corps in 2011 to help Boeing design and build the Starliner, was to command Starliner’s first crewed mission as a private astronaut. But after his maiden flight test failed, Ferguson announced he could no longer fly the vehicle, citing scheduling conflicts.
NASA and Boeing made the announcement in late 2020, saying Ferguson made the decision for “personal reasons.” Ferguson said in a follow-up tweet that he planned to put his family first and that he “has made several commitments that I simply cannot risk missing”.
Although the crewed mission has been postponed several times, there do not appear to be any plans to send Ferguson back to the mission.
A NASA astronaut, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, was assigned take Ferguson’s place.
Boeing thought it was ready to put Starliner through its paces again last year, and it scheduled a second orbital flight test attempt – this one dubbed OFT-2 – for August.
Other problems quickly appeared. When the spacecraft rolled out to its launch pad and began undergoing pre-flight ground checks, engineers discovered that key Starliner valves were sticking. Eventually, Boeing announced that the problem could not be fixed on the launch pad and that the entire vehicle had to be taken back to the assembly building for further troubleshooting.
By mid-August, Boeing had given up trying to fix the problems on the spot. The Starliner had to be sent back to the Boeing factory.
At press conferences ahead of Thursday’s test fight, Boeing officials revealed they will be flying OFT-2 this week with a “short-term” fix in place, but the company may ultimately choose to redesign the system. of valves.
In addition to questions surrounding Boeing’s safety practices as Starliner returns to the launch pad this week, a recent Reuters report highlighted a previously ignored lawsuit filed against Boeing last year by a contractor. who reportedly had his leg partially amputated after an accident before a Starliner parachute test in 2017.
Boeing confirmed in a statement that a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the employee and the contractor. “The issue has been resolved by all parties; the terms of the settlement are confidential,” the statement read.
Court documents confirm the case was settled in December 2021.