Boeing reports a $410M charge in case NASA decides Starliner needs another uncrewed launch

Darrell Etherington

Boeing reported its fourth-quarter results this morning, and they included a $410 million charge specifically earmarked to cover the cost of an additional Commercial Crew mission, should NASA determine that another uncrewed launch is required after the first one didn't go as planned last December.

The pre-tax charge was said to account for a 0.5% decrease in the quarter's overall operating margin, and Boeing specified that actually exercising the use of those funds is dependent on the NASA's determination of whether it decides ultimately that its partner needs to run a do-over in order to fulfill the conditions of its Commercial Crew agreement prior to flying with astronauts on board.

"NASA is evaluating the data received during the December 2019 mission to determine if another uncrewed mission is required," the quarterly results report from Boeing reads.

During the launch, which was meant to include a fully automated docking with the International Space Station, an error with the onboard mission timer meant that the Starliner capsule unexpectedly burned an excess of fuel early on, with the end result being that it couldn't make the planned trip to the ISS. Instead, NASA and Boeing decided to land the capsule early, completing other tests but not the docking demonstration.

Ars Technica recently reported that NASA was also concerned about thruster performance during the mission, but both parties have so far said it's too early to say whether another uncrewed flight will be required prior to putting crew on board Starliner.

Commercial Crew program participant SpaceX performed its uncrewed ISS docking mission, called "Demo-1," last March. Both the automated docking and the spacecraft's return to Earth performed as planned. SpaceX has had its own setbacks, including the destruction of a Crew Dragon during static fire testing last year, but after a successful in-flight abort test earlier this month, it looks to have completed more of the key ingredients required prior to the all-important crewed flight demonstration it's hoping to fly potentially as early as this spring.