Boeing Astronaut Ferguson Puts Family First, Withdraws from Starliner Test Flight

Boeing Astronaut Ferguson Puts Family First, Withdraws from Starliner Test Flight

Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson is stepping aside as commander of the Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) scheduled for next summer. In a tweet, he said he has family commitments he does not want to miss. The flight was originally scheduled for this year, but Boeing is still working to fix problems with the spacecraft discovered during an uncrewed flight test in December. Ferguson will be replaced by NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore.

Ferguson, 59, joined the NASA astronaut corps in 1998 and flew three space shuttle missions. He left the agency and joined Boeing in 2011 after commanding the final space shuttle mission, STS-135.

In a tweet this morning, he explained he is prioritizing “my most important crew — my family.” In a video, he added that “this year is a very important year for my family.  I have made several commitments which I simply cannot risk missing.”

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore (2012). Credit: NASA, Robert Markowitz

Wilmore, 58, also is an experienced astronaut. He joined NASA in 2000 and flew on a 2009 space shuttle mission. In 2014, he launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a long-duration (167-day) mission.

He has been in training with the CFT crew all along as a backup for all three flight positions. The CFT crew also includes NASA’s Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke.

Fincke replaced NASA astronaut Eric Boe in January 2019 when Boe withdrew for medical reasons. Mann, 43, is the only remaining original member of the crew. A Marine test pilot, she joined the NASA astronaut corps in 2013. This will be her first spaceflight.

In a statement, Boeing said Ferguson now will serve as director of Mission Integration and Operations and continue to support the CFT mission. Leanne Caret, President and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said Boeing “fully supports” his decision to put family first. “We are fortunate he will continue to take an active role on the Starliner program and bring his depth and breadth of experience in human spaceflight to the program.”

Kathy Lueders, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, said Wilmore will be able “to step in seamlessly” as Ferguson’s replacement.

Boeing is developing Starliner as one of the two commercial crew systems to ferry crews to and from the ISS for NASA. The other is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Both companies need to demonstrate their vehicles meet NASA safety requirements through flying first an uncrewed and then a crewed test flight. Space X completed both tests and the first operational Crew Dragon mission is scheduled to launch on October 31.

Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 was not fully successful largely because of software errors. The company is responding to more than 100 recommendations from independent review teams and decided to refly the uncrewed test flight before putting astronauts aboard. At the moment the repeat of the uncrewed flight test, OFT-2, is scheduled for December 2020. Assuming all goes well, the CFT will take place in June 2021.  NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee cautioned last week, however, that with all the work that needs to be done, those dates may not be achievable.

Ferguson was to have been the first “commercial” astronaut to command an orbital space mission. That distinction now may fall to Michael López-Alegria, another former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom Space. Axiom has a deal with SpaceX to fly four private astronauts to the ISS next year. López-Alegria is slated to command that flight, Ax1.  He tweeted on Monday that liftoff is a year from now.

The other three aboard the 10-day flight will be private citizens. Actor Tom Cruise and Director Doug Liman reportedly will be two of them so they can shoot scenes for the movie Edge of Tomorrow. NASA is wholly supportive of flying private citizens to ISS and Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted on May 5 that the agency is “excited” to work with Cruise on this project. “We need popular media to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists to make @NASA’s ambitious plans a reality.”

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