Another Crew Change for Boeing’s Starliner

Another Crew Change for Boeing’s Starliner

NASA has made yet another change in the crew assigned to test-fly Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The Crew Flight Test is expected to launch in the next six to nine months. Two instead of three NASA astronauts will be aboard — Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. Williams had been assigned to command the first operational Starliner fight after the CFT. It’s the latest round of astronaut musical chairs over the past four years of who will be on the first Starliner missions.

Starliner is Boeing’s entry in NASA’s commercial crew program to develop crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station as Public-Private Partnerships. The other system, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, is years ahead of Boeing. Its crewed flight test, Demo-2, took place in 2020 and the company is getting ready to launch its fifth operational mission, Crew-5, in September.

Boeing has suffered a number of setbacks beginning with an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 that encountered so many technical problems that Boeing decided to fly it again before putting people on board. It was ready for OFT-2 last August, but had to scrub just hours before launch when 13 propulsion valves failed to open. The spacecraft was finally fixed and ready to go last month. OFT-2 successfully docked with ISS and landed at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Unlike Crew Dragon, Starliner lands on land like Russia’s Soyuz instead of in the ocean.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule, with no one aboard, made a soft landing on airbags at White Sands Missile Range, NM at the end of Orbital Flight Test-2 on May 25, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA and Boeing are still analyzing the data from OFT-2. NASA said today a schedule assessment will be made at the end of July to set a date for CFT. Boeing and NASA have been saying they hope to launch it by the end of this year, but at a press conference following OFT-2’s landing, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said it “certainly” could slip to the first quarter of 2023.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is urging caution, saying there is a “tremendous amount of work” to be done between OFT-2 and CFT.

CFT will be the first Starliner to carry a crew. It’s a step towards getting certification from NASA for operational flights. The flight after that is formally called the first Post Certification Mission or PCM-1, but is commonly referred to as Starliner-1.

NASA first assigned crews for CFT and Starliner-1 in August 2018. Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who joined Boeing, was to be on the CFT crew along with NASA’s Eric Boe and Nicole Mann. NASA’s Josh Cassada and Suni Williams were assigned to Starliner-1.

The CFT crew began changing just six months later when Boe withdrew for medical reasons. NASA’s Mike Fincke replaced him, making the crew Ferguson (Boeing), Fincke (NASA), and Mann (NASA).

In October 2020, Ferguson withdrew for family reasons and was replaced by NASA’s Butch Wilmore, making CFT an all-NASA crew: Wilmore, Fincke, Mann.

In October 2021, as the dates for crewed Starliner flights slipped indefinitely into the future, NASA reassigned astronauts from both CFT and Starliner-1 to SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission in the fall of 2022 saying it was time for two rookies, Mann and Cassada, to get some experience. They switched over to Crew-5, as did Japan’s Koichi Wakata, who also had been assigned to Starliner-1.

That left CFT with Fincke and Wilmore, and Starliner-1 with Williams and NASA’s Jeannette Epps, who had been assigned to Starliner-1 in August 2020.

Rather surprisingly, at a briefing prior to the OFT-2 launch last month, NASA revealed the crew line-up was still in flux. Fincke, Wilmore and Williams were there with Kathy Lueders, Associate Administrator for Space Operations. The astronauts described themselves as a “cadre” of Starliner astronauts who might be assigned to CFT or Starliner-1, or not.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, Mike Fincke and Suni Williams, on the right in blue flight suits, participate in May 18, 2022 OFT-2 leadership briefing. Also shown L-R are Jasmine Hopkins, NASA communications; NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana; Kennedy Space Center Director Janet Petro; and NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps. Photo credit: Robert Markowitz

Today, NASA announced that CFT will have only two instead of three crew members, Wilmore and Williams. Fincke will be the backup spacecraft test pilot. The agency added that a third crew member might be added in the future and the duration of the mission remains undetermined. Only a two-week mission is required, but it could be extended to six months.

Epps now is the only astronaut officially assigned to Starliner-1, though NASA says she is cross-training for Crew Dragon missions. She was in training for a Soyuz mission in 2018, but brought home for reasons NASA has not explained. She has said she was not told either. She was to have been the first African-American woman on a long-duration spaceflight, a distinction that now goes to Jessica Watkins, currently on ISS.

Reid Wiseman, head of the astronaut office, did not explain why he made the choices he just did, saying only that Fincke has “dedicated the last nine years of his career to these first Boeing missions and Suni the last seven. Butch has done a marvelous job leading the team as the spacecraft commander since 2020. …We are all looking forward to cheering on Butch and Suni as they fly the first crewed Starliner mission.”

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