Both SpaceX and Boeing are working toward certification of their manned spacecraft for future NASA flights, but the timeline has been pushed back several times. A new announcement from Boeing could indicate another delay is coming, too. According to the aerospace firm, an “anomaly” occurred in June when it tested the launch abort engines on its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule. Boeing is swearing up and down that everything is fine, but this will almost certainly affect the launch timeline yet again.
The CST-100 Starliner is Boeing’s answer to the SpaceX Dragon v2. Although, Boeing has actually been developing the CST-100 for about a decade at this point. Along with the Dragon, it’s one of just two designs NASA chose for the Commercial Crew Program that will replace the Space Shuttle. Until then, NASA is stuck buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets for millions of dollars.
Boeing designed the CST-100 to launch on existing rockets like the Atlas V. After separating from the first stage, the service module will carry the crew capsule into space. If at any point something goes wrong, the launch abort engines on the CST-100 can blast it free of the second stage to save the crew. Boeing and engine designer Aerojet have tested those components several times in so-called “hot-fire” tests. The June hot-fire test at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico didn’t go entirely as planned, though.
According to Being, the launch abort engine fired successfully for the full duration of the test. However, the aforementioned anomaly caused a fuel leak after shutdown. We’re probably just hearing about this now because Boeing also says it knows what caused the problem and has taken corrective action. It’s not ready to explain exactly what the cause was, though. Boeing is working with NASA to validate the fix.
SpaceX and Boeing are expected to conduct an unmanned test in August, and the official timeline still projects manned flights in late 2018 or early 2019. However, a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that launches from both firms could be delayed into 2020. That would leave NASA without any way of transporting astronauts as its Soyuz contracts only run through late 2019.
The latest issue with Boeing’s crew capsule is hardly earth-shattering, but it will require additional rounds of testing and analysis. Neither Boeing nor NASA has detailed what sort of delay we can expect from that.