NASA pushes first operational Boeing Starliner mission to 2024
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 take crews to low Earth orbit, was originally scheduled to fly in 2017 but has faced a series of delays.
Starliner’s first manned test flight will take place in April 2023 and not in February as planned, NASA announced late last week. The reason, the space agency says, 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 achieve flight readiness,” the space agency said. NASA andstrawnauts Sunita Williams and Barry Wilmore are assigned to the Boeing Crewed Flight Test (CFT).
NASA also took the step to reschedule the SpaceX Crew-7 mission, which is now launching in late 2023 rather than early 2024. This juggling schedule means there are no operational flights planned for Starliner for the coming year and the spacecraft, assuming it gets certified in 2023, won’t fly its first bona fide. mission until 2024 at the earliest.
In May the Starliner’s second unmanned flight test, OFT-2, went fairly well, but the mission to the ISS revealed some issues that Boeing and NASA are currently trying to resolve. “The joint team continues to resolve the OFT-2 anomalies and is working closely together to identify future work and ensure all requirements for manned flight are met,” NASA said, adding that the team is “working on a variety of verification efforts across various critical systems that will be used for the certification of Starliner’s crew flights.”
Opaque and vague, as is typical of NASA in its public statements about private partners. Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, gave more details at an Oct. 31 meeting of the NASA Advisory Board’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, Space news reported. “There were several in-flight anomalies that we had to assess” from OFT-2, he said. “Some of it is still ongoing. That work must be completed and completed before the CFT flight.” In addition to thruster issues that are “pretty well understood and in control,” the team is working on parachutes and software. McAlister said he “wouldn’t characterize anything as important.”
Depending on how the CFT mission unfolds, Starliner could finally get certified next year, followed by regular crew rotation missions to the ISS. But as the rescheduling of the Crew-7 mission shows, NASA’s not making any assumptions about the spacecraft’s pending availability—and for good reason. The Boeing commercial crew project has been beset with difficulties, highlighted by a first flight test in 2019 failed and a failed launch attempt in 2020, in which corrosion caused the capsule valves to get stuck.
NASA has had to lean harder on its other commercial crew partner, SpaceX, as a result. The Elon Musk-led company, which uses its Crew Dragon spacecraft, has been launching astronauts to the ISS since November 2020. The goal of choosing two suppliers was to create some redundancy, but that has yet to happen. “While it is fortunate that the US has one operational ISS crew launch provider, we must continue to express our grave concern about the impact of the ongoing delays of the CST-100 program on the commercial crew program,” said Mark Sirangelo, a member of the Oct. 31 panel and a scholar-in-residence for aerospace, aerospace and engineering at the University of Colorado, as reported in SpaceNews.
NASA recently unwilling and unable to wait for Starliner booked a number of manned launches with SpaceX, namely Crew-7 through Crew-14. With these newly added missions, NASA has secured access to the ISS until 2030, after which the orbital lab is expected to retire. Starliner, on the other hand, is booked for just six flights.
NASA awarded Boeing the $4.2 billion commercial crew contract in 2014. Boeing has announced it’s getting a $190 million hit on Starliner, increasing the company’s total loss on the program to $883 million. To make matters worse, Boeing slipped behind SpaceX on NASA’s list of private partners in fiscal year 2022.
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