The first manned flight of the Starliner was further delayed

The first manned flight of the Starliner was further delayed

WASHINGTON — NASA has delayed the first flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle with astronauts aboard, delaying the spacecraft’s first operational mission to 2024.

NASA announced on November 3 that the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, with the agency’s astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams on board, is 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 to launch in mid-February. “The date adjustment deconflicts spacecraft traffic on the space station as NASA and Boeing work together to achieve flight readiness,” the agency said, adding that both the Starliner and its Atlas 5 rocket “remain on track for readiness in early 2023.”

However, at a meeting of NASA’s Space Safety Advisory Board on October 27, members expressed doubts about the vehicle’s readiness for CFT and subsequent operational missions.

“While it is fortunate that the U.S. has one operational supplier for the launch of crewed ISS, we must continue to express our serious concerns about the impact of the ongoing delays of the CST-100 program on the commercial crewed program,” said Mark Sirangelo, a member of the panel. That impact, he said, also includes the lack of redundant employees that the program planned by selecting two companies.

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

Sirangelo added that NASA’s commercial crew program is tracking additional long-term issues with Starliner, including the transition to first operational or post-certification missions, the transition from the Atlas 5 vehicle that United Launch Alliance is retiring, and the availability of backup hardware, “which may additionally delay the arrival of another provider on the network.”

At an Oct. 31 meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, hinted at a possible delay for the CFT mission, saying a new launch date would be announced soon. However, he played down any problems with the spaceship.

“There were several in-flight anomalies that we had to evaluate” from the OFT-2 mission, he said. “Some of that is still going on. That work must be completed and closed before the CFT flight.”

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

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

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

“The launch date of NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission will be determined after successful flight testing with astronauts and the close of the agency’s certification work,” NASA said in its announcement of the delay.

On October 26, as part of its quarterly financial results, Boeing announced that an additional $195 million in earnings would be required due to the Starliner delay, bringing the company’s total losses to $883 million. In the regulatory filing, he warns that “we may record additional losses in future periods.”

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