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What is the purpose of the Boeing Starliner?

Starliner has been beset with difficulties since Boeing started development as a part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

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What is the purpose of the Boeing Starliner?
Handout AFP

Problems on the ISS in the last two days means NASA has pushed Boeing's Starliner second test to at least August 3.

“It’s of paramount importance that we have a successful flight,” John Vollmer, Boeing’s Starliner chief, said before the second unmanned test that was due today, “This is a serious and unforgiving business, so we take it very seriously... All that we’ve done in the past 18 months, we are very confident that we are going to have a good flight.”

It's first test flight suffered navigation problems so today's mishap is another in a long list of problems affecting the Starliner.

Why is Boeing interested in space flight?

Boeing was first given a contract by NASA in April 2011, $92.3 million, and a year later NASA gave them another contract of $460 million to develop commercial space flight. The opportunity to enter the burgeoning commercial space flight sector is growing and Boeing has tried not to be left behind. Part of Boeing's agreements with NASA means they can sell seats to people willing to pay, as was seen with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin flight earlier this month. However, with a manned test a while off this revenue generator is unlikely to come into the equation soon.

Who are Boeing's competitors?

Boeing has been left by the proverbial wayside as Elon Musk's SpaceX company has dominated the Commerical Crew Program. SpaceX has already trialled manned-missions and Boeing have yet to complete a successful unmanned trial. SpaceX's rocket is called Dragon2 with manned launches under the name Crew Dragon.

Both Jeff Bezos and British entrepeneur Richard Branson tested their commercial flight programs outside of NASA earlier this month.

How close is the project to completion?

The first trial flight was supposed to be in 2017 but Boeing has struggled to hit any of its testing targets. Due to software issues Starliner's first launch was massively delayed and when it finally left the launchpad in 2019 it missed its target of docking with the ISS.

Boeing has had problems off the launchpad too. Two investigations, one related to fraud in Starliner and a criminal probe into Boeing’s bid on a lunar lander contract, have damaged the company’s reputation. A successful second test, whenever it will take place, is crucial to finally realizing the company's ambitions.

“Will there be some learning?", said Vollmer on Tuesday, "There absolutely will be some learning. It’s a test flight.”

What is NASA's Commercial Crew Program?

In its online overview, NASA states that the aim of the project is to partner with the private sector to deliver flights to and from the ISS. The reason for joining with the private sector is that NASA can focus more on deep space missions, and to achieve its target of landing the first woman and person of colour on the moon.

The program started in 2011 with Boeing and SpaceX chosen to fly astronauts to the ISS in September 2014.