WASHINGTON — NASA has delayed the first flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle with astronauts on board, a shift that will push the spacecraft’s first operational mission to 2024.
NASA said Nov. 3 that the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, with agency astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams on board, was now scheduled for April 2023. The mission was previously scheduled for February.
NASA said the new date avoids conflict with the SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station, which is currently scheduled for launch in mid-February. “The date adjustment decongests spacecraft traffic visiting the space station as NASA and Boeing work together to achieve flight readiness,” the agency said, adding that Starliner and its Atlas 5 rocket “ remain on track to be ready for early 2023.”
However, at an Oct. 27 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Security Advisory Committee, members raised doubts about the vehicle’s readiness for CFT and subsequent operational missions.
“While it is fortunate that the United States has only one ISS crew launch provider operating, we must continue to express our grave concern about the impact of the continued delays to the CST-100 program on commercial crew program,” said panel member Mark Sirangelo. This impact, he said, includes the lack of redundancy provided by the program by selecting two companies.
He noted that Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 uncrewed test flight in May “produced a number of in-flight anomalies” that need to be resolved before the CFT, along with additional testing of the latest version of its flight software.
Sirangelo added that NASA’s commercial crew program follows additional longer-term issues with Starliner, including the transition to first operational or post-certification missions, the transition from the Atlas 5 vehicle that United Launch Alliance retires and the availability of spare hardware, “which may further delay the second source vendor going live.”
At an Oct. 31 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, hinted at a possible delay to the CFT mission. , saying a new launch date would be released soon. However, he downplayed any issues with the spacecraft.
“There were several in-flight anomalies that we had to assess” from the OFT-2 mission, he said. “Some of that is still ongoing. This work must be completed and closed before the CFT flight.
Asked later about specific issues with Starliner under consideration, McAlister said work was continuing on parachutes and software. There were also thruster issues during the uncrewed mission, but these are “pretty well understood and in hand”, he said. “I wouldn’t call anything major.”
The CFT’s delay will affect the timing of subsequent operational missions. When CFT was scheduled to launch in February, NASA tentatively planned to follow that up with the first operational Starliner mission, called Starliner-1, in the fall of 2023. Once Starliner is certified, NASA plans to alternate between Starliner missions and Crew Dragon.
However, NASA said it had moved SpaceX’s Crew-7 mission, originally scheduled for spring 2024, to fall 2023, indicating the agency no longer believes Starliner can be certified in time for a mission. operational in fall 2023. .
“A launch date for NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission will be determined following a successful flight test with astronauts and the conclusion of agency certification work,” NASA said in its announcement of the delay.
Boeing announced Oct. 26 as part of its quarterly financial results that it would take an additional $195 million profit charge for Starliner delays, bringing the company’s total losses to $883 million. It warned in a regulatory filing that “we may incur additional losses in future periods.”
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