NASA astronaut bumped from Soyuz flight added to Starliner mission

by

WASHINGTON — A NASA astronaut dropped from a mission to the International Space Station more than two years ago will get a second opportunity as part of a Boeing commercial crew mission.

NASA announced Aug. 25 that Jeanette Epps had been assigned to the first operational CST-100 Starliner mission to the station. She joins NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada, who were assigned to what the agency calls the Starliner-1 mission in 2018.

Epps was originally assigned in 2017 to ISS Expeditions 56 and 57, and was scheduled to launch in mid-2018 on a Soyuz spacecraft with Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos. However, less than six months before launch, NASA announced that her backup, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, would fly in her place, and that Epps, training at the time in Russia, would return to the Johnson Space Center to await a future flight assignment.

NASA never disclosed why it made the crew swap, and Epps herself said she didn’t know, claiming that it was not any kind of medical issue. “I’m not quite sure of the reasons myself,” she said at an October 2018 event here.

Neither NASA nor Epps made any reference to that situation in the announcement of her new flight assignment. “I’m super excited to join Suni Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station,” she said in a brief video she tweeted. “I’m looking forward to the mission.”

The mission will be the first for Epps, who joined the NASA astronaut corps as part of the 2009 class. It will also be the first for Cassada, part of the 2013 astronaut class. Williams, by contrast, is a veteran astronaut who has spent 322 days in space on two long-duration ISS missions, in 2006–2007 and in 2012. A fourth astronaut, likely from an international partner, will later be assigned to the mission.

NASA did not specify when Starliner-1 will launch other than some time in 2021, but it is unlikely to be before next fall given the schedule of other missions previously announced to the station. The first operational SpaceX Crew Dragon mission, Crew-1, is scheduled for launch no earlier than Oct. 23 for a six-month stay. It will be followed by Crew-2, another Crew Dragon mission, launching in the spring of 2021 for a six-month mission.

The schedule for Starliner-1 also depends on the status of development of the spacecraft itself. An uncrewed test flight, called Orbital Flight Test (OFT), in December 2019 suffered several problems that cut short the mission. An independent investigation into the OFT flight resulted in 80 recommendations to address those problems.

Boeing announced in April it would perform a second uncrewed test flight, OFT-2, at its own expense in order to confirm the problems experienced in the previous flight had been corrected and to carry out all the test objectives of the earlier mission, such as docking with the ISS.

OFT-2 is tentatively scheduled for late this year, although Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, suggested recently it might slip to early next year. “The Boeing folks are working hard for their reflight to be done by the end of the year, maybe early January,” she said during an Aug. 24 webinar that was part of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Propulsion and Energy Forum.

That uncrewed test flight will be followed by the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, with NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson on board. Lueders said that mission is tentatively scheduled for early summer of 2021. “We’re really looking to bring both systems up an operational by the end of calendar year ’21,” she said of the two commercial crew systems.

Ferguson, in a Boeing statement, welcomed the addition of Epps to the Starliner-1 crew. “Jeanette will be a part of an important and history-making flight, and we’re excited to welcome her to the Starliner team,” he said, noting he regularly works with Williams and Cassada as they train on the spacecraft at Boeing facilities. “We’re looking forward to getting to know her just as well as we progress toward this flight.”