Enlarge /. A close-up of the Starliner capsule with its service module directly below.
Boeing announced on Monday evening that it would use its Starliner spacecraft without astronauts to demonstrate the vehicle's safety for NASA.
"We are committed to the safety of the men and women who will design, build, and ultimately fly the Starliner, as we have done on every mission in space," Boeing said in a statement. "We decided to do our orbital flight test again to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system. If we fly another flight without a crew, we can achieve all flight test destinations and the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer evaluate. "
The decision follows Starliner's first flight in late December, when an allegedly one-week mission was shortened to two days and a plan to dock with the International Space Station was abandoned due to an "expired mission" error.
In the weeks that followed, a team of researchers found and characterized two important software bugs during the mission, one shortly after launch and another shortly before the capsule was supposed to enter the Earth's atmosphere for its return. This led Doug Loverro, NASA's chief of manned spaceflight, to call the December flight in March a "high-visibility close call".
When asked why he did this, Loverro told reporters at the time: "We could have lost a spaceship twice during this mission." As a result, NASA has started to examine Boeing's safety culture. The agency also officially opened a process in which its security office will investigate elements of the space agency that may have led to the incident – likely with a focus on why NASA did not discover the bugs in Starliner's flight software.
For its part, Boeing said it would pay for the return flight, which had earmarked $ 410 million earlier this year. The company did not say when it would try this second test flight, but the Washington Post, which spread the news about the return flight, speculated that it would come no earlier than this fall.
This means that SpaceX may fly at least two missions of its crewed Dragon spacecraft, which has been competing with Boeing in NASA's commercial crew program for a decade before humans launch into orbit in Starliner. The first crewed kite flight may be in late May, but seems slower to June due to the slowdown in preparations for COVID-19.