Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft stand vertical at their respective launch pads in December 2019 and January 2020. Crew Dragon has now performed two successful full-up launches to Starliner's lone partial failure. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX, Boeing astronaut spacecraft working towards orbital meet-up in 2020

Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft could potentially meet in orbit at the International Space Station later this year. (Richard Angle)

According to Boeing’s new Starliner testing plan, the spacecraft could potentially meet SpaceX’s own Crew Dragon astronaut spacecraft in orbit at the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.

Following Starliner’s near-catastrophic December 2019 orbital flight test (OFT), Boeing and NASA have finally announced that – at a minimum – a second uncrewed flight test will have to be completed before the company will be allowed to launch astronauts. According to the Washington Post, Starliner’s return to flight is expected to occur no earlier than October or November 2020, 10 or 11 months after it suffered several major software failures during its first spaceflight. While delays to that flight schedule are incredibly likely, it does mean that there’s a chance that SpaceX’s second crewed Crew Dragon launch could coincide with Starliner’s second orbital mission — a first for the two NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) providers.

Just one week before NASA and Boeing revealed plans to refly Starliner’s uncrewed flight test, NASA announced that SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon launch now has a full four astronauts assigned to it. Scheduled to launch no earlier than Q4 2020, the spacecraft will carry three NASA astronauts and one Japanese (JAXA) astronaut to the ISS, remaining in orbit for at least six months before returning its crew back to Earth. Now, there’s a chance that SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon will be joined in orbit by Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft sometime soon after arriving on station.

An photo of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in orbit. (NASA)
A render of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft in orbit. (Boeing)

As previously discussed on Teslarati, Boeing’s Starliner OFT suffered several near-catastrophic close calls in the few days it spent in space, all of which appear to have egregiously shoddy and unqualified software to blame.

“Starliner launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket on its orbital launch debut (OFT) on December 20th, 2019. Atlas V performed flawlessly but immediately after Starliner separated from the rocket, things went very wrong.

Bad software ultimately caused the spacecraft to perform thousands of uncommanded maneuvering thruster burns, depleting a majority of its propellant before Boeing was able to intervene. Starliner managed to place itself in low Earth orbit (LEO), but by then it had nowhere near enough propellant left to rendezvous and dock with the ISS – one of the most crucial purposes of the flight test. Unable to complete that part of the mission, Boeing instead did a few small tests over the course of 48 hours in orbit before commanding the spacecraft’s reentry and landing on December 22nd.

The Starliner spacecraft also reportedly almost suffered a second major software failure just hours before reentry. According to NASA and Boeing comments in a press conference held only after news of that second failure broke, a second Starliner software bug – caught only because the first failure forced Boeing to double-check its code – could have had far more catastrophic consequences. NASA stated that had the second bug not been caught, some of Starliner’s thruster valves would have been frozen, either entirely preventing or severely hampering the spacecraft’s detached trunk from properly maneuvering in orbit. Apparently, that service module (carrying fuel, abort engines, a solar array, and more) could have crashed into the crew module shortly after detaching.” — February 11th, 2020

The only sane response was obviously for NASA to require Boeing to successfully complete a second Orbital Flight Test (OFT), a necessary decision the space agency and card-holder was bizarrely hesitant to acknowledge. Now, almost four months after Starliner was nearly lost on its first orbital flight test, NASA and Boeing have finally stated the obvious and confirmed that a second OFT will be required before astronauts can fly on Starliner. Even then, if things go wrong during OFT2 or Boeing completes the mission but still fails to rectify all faults identified by a joint failure investigation, NASA may still delay the spacecraft’s astronaut launch debut.

SpaceX has successfully completed and launched two Crew Dragon spacecraft, one to orbit and back and the other on a successful in-flight abort (IFA) demonstration. A third is scheduled to launch to the space station as early as next month. (NASA/Richard Angle/SpaceX)

SpaceX has undeniably had its own stumbles while developing Crew Dragon, most notably when the first successfully flight-proven spacecraft violently exploded moments before a static fire test in April 2019. SpaceX was able to rectify the responsible design flaws and successfully complete an identical static fire test less than seven months later, followed by a second successful launch less than three months after that. Based on WaPo’s indication that Starliner’s second OFT is scheduled for Q4 2020, Boeing is now anywhere from 12-18 months behind SpaceX with its efforts to launch NASA astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX successfully completed Crew Dragon’s OFT equivalent in March 2019.

Regardless, if Crew Dragon performs flawlessly during its Demo-2 astronaut launch debut – scheduled no earlier than mid-to-late May – and Boeing’s Starliner OFT2 mission launches on time in Q4 2020, there is a great chance that both spacecraft will be simultaneously docked to the space station. Better circumstances would be unequivocally preferable but it will still mark an important symbolic milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and assured access to the ISS.

SpaceX, Boeing astronaut spacecraft working towards orbital meet-up in 2020
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