The first operational mission of Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 spacecraft to the International Space Station will not take place until 2024 at the earliest, according to NASA’s updated flight manifest. The capsule, designed to carry crew into low Earth orbit, was originally scheduled to fly in 2017 but suffered a series of delays.
Starliner’s first crewed test flight will take place in April 2023, not February as planned, NASA announcement late last week. The reason, the space agency explains, is to avoid a scheduling conflict with the SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the ISS, which is scheduled for mid-February. “NASA and Boeing are currently working together to ensure flight readiness,” the space agency said. NASA aAstronauts Sunita Williams and Barry Wilmore were assigned to the Boeing Crewed Flight Test (CFT).
NASA also made the decision to reschedule the SpaceX Crew-7 mission, which will now launch in late 2023 instead of early 2024. This juggling of the schedule means that no operational flights for Starliner are planned for the year at come and that the spacecraft, assuming it achieves certification in 2023, will not fly its first bona fide flight assignment until 2024 at the earliest.
In May, the second unmanned flight test of Starliner, OFT-2, went relatively well, but the mission to the ISS revealed some issues that Boeing and NASA are working to resolve. “The joint team continues to close OFT-2 anomalies and partner closely to identify future work and ensure all requirements for crewed flight are met,” NASA said, adding that the team” is working on a variety of verification efforts on several critical systems that will be used for Starliner crew flight certification.
Opaque and vague, as is typical of NASA in its public statements about private partners. Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, provided more details during an Oct. 31 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, SpaceNews reported. “There were several in-flight anomalies that we had to assess” from OFT-2, he said. “Some of that is still ongoing. This work must be completed and closed before the CFT flight. In addition to propellant issues which are “fairly well understood and in hand”, the team is working on parachutes and software. McAlister said he “wouldn’t call anything major”.
Depending on how the CFT mission unfolds, Starliner could finally be certified next year, followed by regular crew rotation missions to the ISS. But as the postponement of the Crew-7 mission shows, NASA isn’t making any assumptions about the spacecraft’s imminent availability — and for good reason. Boeing’s commercial crew project has run into difficulties, highlighted by a first flight test failed in 2019 and a failed launch attempt in 2020, in which corrosion caused the capsule valves to jam.
NASA had to lean harder on its other commercial crew partner, SpaceX, as a result. The Elon Musk-led company, using its Crew Dragon spacecraft, has been launching astronauts to the ISS since November 2020. The purpose of choosing two vendors was to create some redundancy, but that has yet to happen. “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 the commercial crew program,” said Mark Sirangelo, an Oct. 31 panel member and space, aerospace, and engineering scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado, as reported in SpaceNews.
NASA, unwilling and unable to wait for Starliner, recently booked a bunch of crewed launches with SpaceX, namely Crew-7 to Crew-14. With these newly added missions, NASA has secured access to the ISS until 2030, after which the orbital laboratory is expected to be retired. Starliner, on the other hand, is only booked for six flights.
NASA awarded Boeing the $4.2 billion commercial crew contract in 2014. In October, Boeing announced it was taking a $190 million hit on Starliner, bringing the company’s total loss on the program to $883 million. Adding insult to injury, Boeing slipped behind SpaceX on NASA’s list of private partners in fiscal year 2022.
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