First Starliner crewed flight further delayed

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WASHINGTON — NASA has delayed the first flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle with astronauts on board, a slip that will push back the spacecraft’s first operational mission into 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 planned for February.

NASA said the new date avoids a conflict with the SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station, which is currently scheduled for launch in mid-February. “The date adjustment deconflicts visiting spacecraft traffic at the space station as NASA and Boeing work together to achieve flight readiness,” the agency stated, adding that both Starliner and its Atlas 5 rocket “remain on track for readiness in early 2023.”

However, at an Oct. 27 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, members raised doubts about the readiness of the vehicle for both CFT and later operational missions.

“While it is fortunate that the U.S. has one operating ISS crew launch provider, we need to continue to express our serious concern with the impact of the ongoing delays of the CST-100 program on the commercial crew program,” said Mark Sirangelo, a member of the panel. That impact, he said, includes the lack of redundancy the program intended by selecting two companies.

He noted that the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 uncrewed test flight of Starliner in May “produced a number of in-flight anomalies” that need to be resolved before CFT, as well as additional testing of the latest version of its flight software.

Sirangelo added that NASA’s commercial crew program was following additional longer-term issues with Starliner, including the transition to the first operational or post-certification missions, transition from the Atlas 5 vehicle that United Launch Alliance is retiring and availability of spare hardware, “which may further delay the second source provider coming online.”

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 in the CFT mission, saying a new launch date would soon be released soon. However, he played down any problems 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. That work has to be completed and closed out before the CFT flight.”

Asked later about specific issues with Starliner being studied, McAlister said work continued on parachutes and software. There were also thruster problems on the uncrewed mission, but those are “pretty well understood and in hand,” he said. “I wouldn’t characterize anything as major.”

The delay in CFT will affect the schedule of later operational missions. When CFT was scheduled for launch in February, NASA had tentatively planned to follow that with the first operational Starliner mission, called Starliner-1, in the fall of 2023. Once Starliner is certified, NASA plans to alternate between Starliner and Crew Dragon missions.

However, NASA said it has moved up SpaceX’s Crew-7 mission, previously planned for the spring of 2024, to the fall of 2023, indicating that the agency no longer believes Starliner can be certified in time for an operational mission in the fall of 2023.

“A launch date for NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission will be determined following a successful flight test with astronauts and close out of the agency’s 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 charge against earnings for Starliner delays, bringing the total losses recorded by the company to $883 million. It warned in a regulatory filing that “we may record additional losses in future periods.”