NASA Expresses Confidence in Boeing’s Starliner as it Reassigns Crews to SpaceX

NASA Expresses Confidence in Boeing’s Starliner as it Reassigns Crews to SpaceX

NASA is reassigning two astronauts scheduled to fly on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission instead. Starliner’s debut is delayed indefinitely as the company troubleshoots a valve issue that arose just hours before an uncrewed test flight in August. NASA said it still has confidence in Boeing, but it was time for the two rookies, Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, to get some spaceflight experience and Starliner will not be launching anytime soon. A decision on whether to reassign another rookie, Jeanette Epps, is pending.

NASA signed contracts with Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to develop “commercial crew” space transportation systems to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). They are Public-Private Partnerships where the companies retain ownership of the systems and sell services to NASA and other customers.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon made its first operational flight last year and is about to launch another mission for NASA, Crew-3, at the end of this month.  It already has found non-NASA customers. Four non-professional astronauts flew the Inspiration4 mission last month and another private astronaut mission, Ax-1 for Axiom Space, is coming up in February.

Boeing has fallen far behind its rival. The first uncrewed Starliner test flight, Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019, suffered software and communications problems so severe that the company decided to refly the uncrewed mission before putting astronauts aboard. Almost 20 months later, on August 3, it was ready to try again. OFT-2 got within two hours of launch before Boeing had to abort the mission when 13 valves in the propulsion system failed to open. They had worked correctly during tests five weeks earlier.

Boeing Starliner OFT-2 on the launch pad atop its ULA Atlas V rocket, August 2, 2021. Screengrab.

Boeing and NASA are still trying to determine the root cause of the failure and reschedule OFT-2. Once the uncrewed test is successful, the next step is a Crew Flight Test (CFT) with three astronauts followed by the first operational flight, Starliner-1.

At a media briefing today about the upcoming SpaceX Crew-3 flight on October 30, NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) Manager Steve Stich expressed confidence in Boeing, but said no Starliner flights will take place this year and declined to speculate on when they might happen in 2022. “We have not lost confidence in the Boeing team” as “we work hand in hand” with them to find and fix the valve problem. He added that a press release will be issued later this week with a more formal update on the progress being made. [UPDATE, Friday, October 8: In a post on CCP’s blog (not in a press release) early this evening, NASA and Boeing added a little information about the status of the investigation, but the bottom line is unchanged — OFT-2 will not launch this year. They are looking at dates “in the first half of 2022.”]

The question of when Starliner will fly arose because today NASA announced that it is reassigning Mann, who until now was supposed to fly on CFT, and Cassada, previously assigned to Starliner-1, to fly on the fifth SpaceX Crew Dragon mission next year, Crew-5.

Boeing said in a statement that “We understand the agency’s need to make adjustments to get members of the current astronaut class flying experience on an operational vehicle while the development of the Starliner spacecraft continues. We fully support NASA’s decisions and remain committed to putting the safety of the astronauts who will fly on our vehicle first.”

Starliner crew assignments were made years ago.

Boeing CFT and Starliner-1 crews and NASA officials at Kennedy Space Center prior to first OFT flight, December 19, 2019 (L-R): KSC Center Director Bob Cabana, Josh Cassada, Sunita Williams, Nicole Mann, Chris Ferguson, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. At podium, Mike Fincke. Credit: NASA

CFT’s original crew was assigned in August 2018: Boeing’s own Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut; and NASA’s Mann and Eric Boe. In 2019, Boe was replaced by NASA’s Mike Fincke for medical reasons. In October 2020, Ferguson withdrew for family reasons and was replaced by NASA’s Butch Wilmore, making it an all-NASA crew: Wilmore, Mann and Fincke.

Starliner-1’s first two crew members were announced at the same time: NASA’s Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada. NASA’s Jeanette Epps joined the crew in August 2020. JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata has been mentioned as a fourth crew member since May 2021 although his JAXA website says only that he is in training for a mission to ISS in 2022, not specifically this one. [UPDATE, October 12: JAXA just announced that Wakata also will be on Crew-5 with Mann and Cassada.]

Of the NASA astronauts on the two missions, three are rookies: Mann, Cassada and Epps. Mann and Cassada joined the astronaut corps in 2013; Epps in 2009.

Stich explained today that Mann and Cassada were being reassigned to Crew-5, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launching in the fall of 2022, because “it was just the right time in their careers to make this change.”

NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps. Credit: Robert Markowitz

NASA’s press release said three other NASA astronauts, Wilmore, Fincke, and Williams, “will continue to provide experience to Boeing as the agency prepares for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test.”

The press release said absolutely nothing about Epps, even though every other NASA astronaut assigned to the CFT and Starliner-1 missions was accounted for.

Stich said nothing about her in his opening comments today, either.

Epps has been waiting longer than the others for her first flight. She was assigned to fly on a Soyuz mission in 2018, but NASA withdrew her for reasons that have never been publicly explained. Epps has said she was not told why, either.

When asked about her status during the press conference today, Stich was evasive. She is still assigned to Starliner-1, he said, but that is being evaluated.

“We’re in the process of looking at that assignment and seeing if that would change over time.”

Epps would be the first African-American woman on a long-duration mission to the ISS.

NASA did not respond to a request from for more information about why Epps was not reassigned like the others.

Update, October 7:  Today, one day after this article was published, NASA included this statement about Epps in a new post on its Commercial Crew blog.


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