NASA, Boeing Target February 2023 for Starliner Crew Flight Test

NASA, Boeing Target February 2023 for Starliner Crew Flight Test

NASA and Boeing said today they are targeting February 2023 for the Crew Flight Test of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle. Starliner is the competitor to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, but far behind. If the Crew Flight Test goes as planned, Boeing hopes to have its first operational Starliner flight to the International Space Station in the fall of 2023, about three years after SpaceX’s Crew-1.

The February 2023 time frame is tentative, however. NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said, as he often does, that “we’ll fly when we’re ready.”

February was chosen not only based on an assessment of when the spacecraft will be ready, but when there is an opening in the International Space Station’s schedule to fit it in.

NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams. Photo credit: NASA

NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano said Starliner, with a crew of two NASA astronauts, will remain docked at ISS for about 8 days. That visit by Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams has to be interwoven with other arrivals and departures by cargo spacecraft and crews. Montalbano said the first 6 months of 2023 are “incredibly busy” with SpaceX and Northrop Grumman cargo flights, Soyuz and Crew Dragon handovers, plus the Axiom-2 private astronaut mission. “Those first six months are going to be running, running, running.” But Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) is a priority and “we’ll be making sure there’s room for them.”

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA explictly designed the commercial crew program, like the commercial cargo program before it, to have two service providers to ensure redundancy and competition. Both are Public-Private Partnerships where the government and the companies share in the cost of development, but the companies retain ownership of their systems and are encouraged to find non-NASA customers to close the business case. The development contracts are fixed price. Post-development, NASA simply purchases services.

In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract, compared to $2.6 billion for SpaceX. But Boeing has had to pay $688 million of its own money to fix significant problems uncovered during the first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 and additional technical problems that arose during the first attempt to fly OFT-2 last summer.

The successful landing of OFT-2 in May was a major milestone for the program.

Boeing’s OFT-2 mission landing at White Sands Space Harbor, NM, May 25, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Mark Nappi, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for Starliner, told reporters today that the company has completed its review of OFT-2 and the final report will be submitted tomorrow. He stressed it was a test flight and “we knew we’d learn something from this flight.” But only “minimal changes” are needed before CFT.  He listed four top areas that are being worked.

  • Two Orbital Maneuvering Attitude Control (OMAC) thrusters cut out during orbital insertion due to “debris-related conditions.” He said they will never know for sure what the debris was because that part of the spacecraft did not return to Earth. Instead, they had to narrow it down to two to three probable causes and then make certain nothing similar could happen on subsequent spacecraft.
  • Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters on the Crew Module and Service Module cut out as Starliner was approaching the ISS. That problem was traced to “low inlet pressures and manifold dynamics that delayed sensor responses.” A small change “to the mission data load that’s prepared for each mission … a tweak of timing and tolerances” will prevent it happening again.
  • High pump pressures detected during the mission were caused by flow restrictions due to filters “that we’ve determined are really not required.”
  • The Vision-based Electro-optical Sensor Tracking Assembly, or VESTA, performed very well, but was collecting more data than it could manage so the software is being revised.

NASA and Boeing had hoped to fly CFT by the end of this year, but making all those fixes plus the ISS scheduling challenges pushed the date to no earlier than February.

NASA is eager to have Starliner join Crew Dragon to ensure crews are always aboard the ISS, which is maintenance-intensive. The ISS has a Russian segment and a U.S. segment (that includes modules from Europe and Japan and a robotic arm from Canada) that are interdependent, so having Russians and Americans on board at all times is a priority.

Depite the extremely strained U.S.-Russian relationship following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two countries signed a crew-exchange or seat-swap agreement last month for U.S. astronauts to continue flying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and Russians to fly on Crew Dragon.

Montalbano explained today the agreement is only for three pairs of flights, one each in 2022, 2023, and 2024. The first pair is set for September 21 when NASA’s Frank Rubio will launch with two Russians on Soyuz MS-22 and October 3 when Roscosmos’s Anna Kikina will launch with two Americans and a Japanese on Crew-5.

Once those flights are underway, negotiations will begin to modify the agreement for the long-term with Russian flights both on Crew Dragon and Starliner. NASA’s plan is to launch one Crew Dragon and one Starliner to ISS each year.

“My plan is to start working that this fall. And so as you know we signed the integrated crew agreement which is one flight per year in ’22, ’23, and ’24, with a cosmonaut on SpaceX and an astronaut on Soyuz. But soon as we get past the September … and October launch campaigns we’ll be working trying to fold in Boeing and make it a long term agreement. Right? The goal is a long term agreement. Every time we fly we have a cosmonaut on either SpaceX or Boeing and an astronaut on the Soyuz spacecraft. But again, we’ll start working that in detail later this year.” — Joel Montalbano

Closing the business cased for Starliner and Crew Dragon rests with Boeing and SpaceX finding non-NASA customers. SpaceX is already doing that, flying Crew Dragon for private astronauts on Inspiration4 and Axiom-1 with more in the pipeline.

Nappi said Boeing also is looking at Private Astronaut Missions, or PAMs, and other users to make Starliner profitable, but NASA is the priority now.

NASA has already purchased six operational flights of Starliner, called Post-Certification Missions or PCMs, once the agency has certified Starliner as safe for NASA astronauts, which is expected after CFT.

Nappi said PCM-1, also called Starliner-1, is targeted for launch in the fall of 2023, but wasn’t more specific. It’s not clear who will be on that mission. The crews assigned to Starliner flights have changed repeatedly over the years as one delay followed another. Three of the four crewmembers on October’s SpaceX flight to ISS, Crew-5, were reassigned from Starliner (Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada and JAXA’s Koichi Wakata). Mike Fincke and Jeanette Epps are two other NASA astronauts who have been assigned to Starliner. Until quite recently, in fact, Fincke was going to be on CFT. NASA confirmed in June that Epps is still officially assigned to Starliner-1, but is cross-training on Crew Dragon.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.