NASA reshuffles commercial crew astronaut assignments because of Starliner delays
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NASA has reassigned two astronauts from Boeing commercial crew missions to a SpaceX one as the agency addresses delays in the development of the CST-100 Starliner and works out a seat barter agreement with Russia.
NASA announced Oct. 6 that astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada would be the commander and pilot, respectively, of the Crew-5 mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, launching to the International Space Station no earlier than the fall of 2022. The other two people flying that mission will be announced later.
Mann was previously part of the three-person Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, the first crewed flight of Starliner. Cassada was part of Starliner-1, the first operational Starliner mission that will follow the CFT mission. Neither CFT nor Starliner-1 has firm launch dates because of continued delays in the second uncrewed Starliner mission, Orbital Flight Test 2. The reassignments were first reported by Ars Technica Oct. 5, which at the time did not expect a formal announcement for weeks or months.
In a previously scheduled briefing about the upcoming SpaceX Crew-3 mission Oct. 6, NASA officials said they reassigned Cassada and Mann because they wanted to give the two rookie astronauts flight experience sooner rather than later. “To us, it seemed like the right time,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. “We really wanted to get Nicole and Josh some experience and get them into space as soon as we can.”
NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Mike Fincke remained assigned to the CFT mission and Suni Williams to Starliner-1. All three are veteran astronauts, and NASA said other astronauts will be added to those missions in the future.
Also remaining on Starliner-1 is Jeanette Epps, another rookie astronaut who was removed from a Soyuz mission to the ISS in 2018 for reasons the agency declined to disclose at the time. “We’re reevaluating that flight assignment,” Stich said. “Since Starliner-1 is a little further out than CFT we’re in the process of looking at that assignment and see if that would change over time.”
NASA is hoping that one of the two open seats on Crew-5 will be filled by a Russian cosmonaut. The agency is continuing discussions with Roscosmos on a seat barter agreement to allow NASA and other Western astronauts to fly on Soyuz spacecraft in exchange for Russian cosmonauts flying on commercial crew vehicles. Such “mixed crews” would ensure both astronauts and cosmonauts would be on the station if there is a problem with a Soyuz, Crew Dragon or Starliner spacecraft.
“We have been working with our Russian partners on what we call a ‘crew swap’ strategy,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for space operations at NASA, at the briefing. “We’ve demonstrated that the Crew Dragon is a capable vehicle going forward, and now it’s just a matter of putting the next layer of government-to-government agreements together to support that.”
Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, said he met with Roscosmos officials last week in Moscow about the agreement. “Our target is still for Crew-5 in fall of ’22, to have a cosmonaut on that vehicle,” he said, “and we would have an American on the Soyuz in the same time frame.”
That would rule out flying a cosmonaut on Crew-4, launching in the spring of 2022. NASA had left open one of the four seats on that mission in the event an agreement could be reached in time. Stich said a backup crew member for Crew-4 will be assigned to fill that seat “at the right time.”
The next Soyuz crew rotation mission, launching in the spring of 2022, will have three Russian cosmonauts on board. Montalbano said NASA had no plans to acquire a seat on that flight, as it did early this year when it worked out an agreement through a third party, Axiom Space, to buy the seat and fly NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei in the place of a Russian cosmonaut. Montalbano said the handover between the Crew-3 and Crew-4 missions will be timed “such that we maintain a U.S. presence on board.”
Crew Dragon updates
The briefing was primarily about the Crew-3 mission, launching Oct. 30 and sending to the ISS NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer.
The flight will be the first for a new Crew Dragon spacecraft, the third in SpaceX’s fleet. SpaceX has made minor changes to this vehicle based on experience from previous flights, including the Crew-1 mission where, during its return to Earth, debris caused minor damage to one of the drogue parachutes.
Stich said the issue was with a “minor sleeve” on the drogue intended to protect riser lines on the parachute from abrasion. “We already made a fix to that to enhancing some stitching on this little sleeve,” he said.
Another issue is with the waste management system on the spacecraft, where a small connection “could be a bit loose,” said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX. “We just rolled in an improvement to make that joint a little tighter.”
SpaceX is also sharing with NASA data it collected on the Inspiration4 private Crew Dragon mission in September. Stich said that mission is of interest since it flew higher than those to the ISS, exposing the spacecraft to a higher amount of micrometeroids and orbital debris. The three-day flight also offered a more robust test of the life support system on the spacecraft.
In addition to the new Crew Dragon for the Crew-3 mission, SpaceX is building a fourth Crew Dragon that Walker said should be ready in the spring of 2022, perhaps for the Crew-4 mission. There are no plans, she added, to build more Crew Dragon capsules at this time. “Those four Crew Dragon vehicles seem sufficient to meet our manifest, which is thriving.”