NASA assigns two astronauts to Starliner test flight

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PASADENA, Calif. — NASA has assigned two veteran astronauts to the first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in the latest reshuffling of personnel assigned to the long-delayed mission.

NASA announced June 16 that Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore will fly the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission no earlier than late this year. The mission will travel to the International Space Station on a flight currently expected to last two weeks.

Both Williams and Wilmore have extensive spaceflight experience. Williams was on two long-duration ISS missions in 2006–2007 and 2012, with a total of 322 days in space. Wilmore was pilot of the STS-129 shuttle mission in 2009 and spent six months on the ISS in 2014–2015.

NASA had previously assigned Williams to Starliner-1, the first operational Starliner mission to the ISS. Wilmore had been part of CFT since 2020 when he replaced Boeing commercial astronaut Chris Ferguson, who dropped out of the mission for personal reasons.

At the time NASA assigned Wilmore to CFT, he was to fly with fellow NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. However, NASA reassigned Mann in October 2021 to the SpaceX Crew-5 mission, scheduled to launch this September. In the announcement of the new CFT assignments, NASA said that Fincke will now train as a backup for CFT “and remains eligible for assignment to a future mission.”

At a briefing last month before the launch of the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 uncrewed test flight of Starliner, Fincke, Williams and Wilmore all said they were training together as a “cadre” and not necessarily assigned to a particular mission. Wilmore said that had been the case since the initial OFT-2 launch attempt in August 2021 was postponed because of a problem with the valves on the spacecraft.

“Since that time in August, the three of us have been working as a cadre supporting Starliner, and we know we are not necessarily assigned to CFT,” Wilmore said.

A two-week mission, NASA said, “is sufficient to meet all NASA and Boeing test objectives for CFT.” Several years ago, NASA proposed extending CFT to as long as six months to ensure NASA access to the ISS given uncertainty about future purchases of Soyuz seats that the agency had been relying on for its astronauts. With SpaceX’s Crew Dragon now handling routine crew rotation missions, that extension is no longer needed.

NASA has not yet set a date for the CFT mission. In the statement, the agency expected to make a “launch schedule assessment” at the end of July after reviewing data from OFT-2 and any changes needed to Starliner after that mission. Additional factors include the schedule of other missions to the ISS and the launch schedule for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, which launches Starliner.

“Starliner and the Atlas 5 performed well during all phases of OFT-2, and now we are taking a methodical look at each system to determine what needs to be upgraded or improved ahead of CFT, just as we do with every other crewed flight,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said in the NASA statement.

With the reassignment of Williams to CFT and the earlier shift of Josh Cassada to Crew-5, the only astronaut still part of Starliner-1 is Jeanette Epps. NASA said it still plans to fly Epps on that mission but that she has also been training on Crew Dragon “for additional scheduling and resource flexibility.”