WASHINGTON — NASA says the first crewed launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle remains on schedule for the middle of April as the company completes work to resolve the latest technical problems with the vehicle.
Speaking at a Nov. 20 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Phil McAlister, director of the agency’s commercial space division, said preparations for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission were on schedule for a launch as soon as April 14.
“We are on track for that launch,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of things to do, obviously.”
He said NASA and Boeing had closed out all the work on all the issues from Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2, the second uncrewed test flight of the spacecraft in May 2022. They have also completed 98% of the “cert products,” or certification paperwork, needed for CFT.
The mission, which will fly NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the International Space Station for a stay of at least eight days, had been scheduled to take place this year after the completion of OFT-2. However, NASA and Boeing said in August they were delaying the mission to no earlier than March 2024 to resolve two problems found during preparations for CFT: removing tape in wire harnesses in the capsule that is flammable and redesigning “soft links” in the spacecraft’s parachutes to increase their safety margin.
McAlister said he believed that the tape remediation work was complete. Boeing, in a statement to SpaceNews, confirmed that the company had removed more than 1,300 meters of the tape from the Starliner capsule. The company also wrapped the flammable tape in some areas with a non-flammable tape or covered it with a “non-flammable multi-layer fabric sleeve.”
“We went zone by zone and identified all the tape and what would be the risk to removing the tape,” Dave McCann, Boeing’s chief engineer for the Starliner program, said in the statement. “The Boeing and NASA teams worked together to balance those risks and create the safest vehicle possible.”
For the parachutes, McAlister said that one drop test is scheduled for January to test the performance of the redesigned soft links. “That will be a really important test to get behind us,” he said. “If that goes smoothly, we are definitely on track for an April 14th launch.”
The CFT mission, besides the first crewed flight for Starliner, includes two key milestones. He pointed out that it will be the first time a crewed U.S. capsule lands on land, rather than splashing down in the ocean. It is also in line to be first crewed launch from Cape Canaveral, rather than neighboring Kennedy Space Center, since Apollo 7 in 1968. CFT will launch on an Atlas 5 from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 41.
However, SpaceX could beat Boeing to that second milestone. McAlister confirmed that SpaceX and Axiom Space are in discussions about launching the Ax-3 private astronaut mission from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 where SpaceX is completing construction of a crew and cargo access tower. Ax-3 is scheduled to launch as soon as Jan. 10, and going from SLC-40 would allow Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lunar lander mission to launch Jan. 12 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, which is configured for fueling the lander shortly before launch.
He said the key was getting CFT successfully flown so that it can begin long-duration ISS crew rotation missions, alternating with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. “We will be very, very pleased to get that off and get Starliner into the fleet, flying regular missions to the ISS.”