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Calamity capsule: Boeing's Starliner losses approaching $1B

Troubled space capsule cost $195 million this quarter, bringing total losses on it since 2020 to $883m

The Starliner losses just keep adding up for Boeing, whose troubled crew capsule spacecraft is closing in on $900 million in cumulative losses for the aerospace giant.

Boeing's Q3 quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicates that it lost $195 million for the quarter, and $288 million for the year to date, thanks to Starliner, which has been beset by repeated hardware and software problems that have kept the craft grounded.

Combined with reported Starliner losses going back to late 2019, Boeing's total loss from the program has now reached $883 million. The biggest of these was a $410 million charge in Q4 2019 after two serious software bugs prevented Boeing's Starliner from docking with the International Space Station in December that year, putting the spacecraft at risk.

This quarter, Boeing said Starliner's losses were primarily due to "increases to estimated costs related to completing the crewed flight tests and revised schedules for both the crewed flight test and three post certification missions," the company told the SEC.

Boeing also recorded a $93 million charge in Q2, "driven by launch manifest updates and additional costs associated with OFT-2", and in October last year took a $185 million charge against its earnings to cover the costs of getting the CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle flying again.

When it contracted with NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station along with SpaceX, Boeing said it had expected the three post-certification missions it had agreed to with NASA to be completed by 2024. The repeated delays affecting Starliner have forced those missions back, so they're now expected to be completed by 2026, Boeing said. 

As we've noted several times before, Space-X, Boeing's major competitor in commercial spaceflight and NASA's other commercial crew mission partner, has been flying astronauts to the International Space Station since 2020

SpaceX has signed multiple extensions to its contract with NASA since agreeing to be a commercial launch partner in 2014. 

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Starliner's first flight in the waning hours of 2019 went poorly when software on the craft caused a timer error that led to the CST-100 capsule's onboard clock being 11 hours off by the time it launched. Once in orbit, Starliner burned through its fuel, thinking it was further along in the mission timeline than it was, resulting in a planned docking with the ISS being abandoned.

By August 2021 Starliner was set for a second uncrewed test launch, which was scrubbed when 13 of the valves that controlled the capsule's propulsion system failed pre-flight checks, leading to the capsule having to be returned for repairs that weren't able to be made on site. 

In October, NASA decided to pull astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, slated for Starliner's first crewed flight test and first official crewed mission, from the project. The pair were reassigned to a SpaceX Dragon launch, and recently docked with the ISS on its Crew-5 mission

"NASA decided it was important to make these reassignments to allow Boeing time to complete the development of Starliner while continuing plans for astronauts to gain spaceflight experience for the future needs of the agency's missions," NASA said at the time. 

The valve issue kept CST-100 grounded until this past May, when it finally reached orbit and successfully docked - uncrewed - with the ISS. A crewed Starliner mission is now planned for some time in 2023.

As to whether Boeing thinks Starliner will stop creating drag on profits now that it has made it to space, the company isn't that optimistic. "Risk remains that we may record additional losses in future periods," Boeing told the SEC. ®

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