Starliner CFT Cleared for May 6 Launch

Starliner CFT Cleared for May 6 Launch

Today NASA and Boeing gave a thumbs up for the May 6 launch of Boeing’s Starliner Crew Flight Test. The long-awaited CFT mission with two NASA astronauts hopefully will be the final step in certifying Starliner as the second commercial crew space transportation system to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, both experienced test pilots and veteran spacefarers, arrived at Kennedy Space Center today.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams (at microphone) and Butch Wilmore (far right) arrive at Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the Starliner Crew Flight Test, April 25, 2024. Their backup, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, far left, will pilot the next Starliner mission, Starliner-1. Screengrab.

As they flew in, NASA and Boeing officials were conducting the Flight Test Readiness Review, or FTRR, to confirm that everything is in order for the first launch of Starliner with people onboard. The first uncrewed orbital flight test, OFT, in 2019 experienced significant anomalies and Boeing decided to refly the test again with no one onboard. That flight, OFT-2, also encountered major problems. It finally flew in 2022, but then more issues arose with the spacecraft leading to yet more delays.

After today’s FTRR, however, Starliner is finally cleared to launch to the ISS with a crew. Launch is scheduled for May 6 at 10:34 pm ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Starliner launches on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. This is the first time an Atlas rocket will send humans into space since the Mercury-Atlas launches of the early 1960s. The last time humans launched from what was then Cape Kennedy Air Force Station was Apollo 7 in 1968. All U.S. human spaceflights since then have been from KSC’s Launch Complex 39, which is still used today by SpaceX for Crew Dragon and by NASA for the Artemis campaign.

At a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free stressed that Starliner is only the sixth U.S. spacecraft ever designed to carry people to space and this is a test flight.

Let me just remind everyone again — this is a new spacecraft. I’ll also remind you that this is a test flight. You have the benefit of what’s been learned on OFT-1 and OFT-2 [but] … we certainly have some unknowns in this mission, things we expect to learn [this] being a test mission. We may encounter things we don’t expect. But our job now is to remain vigilant and keep looking for issues. — Jim Free

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded “commercial crew” contracts at the same time in 2014 to develop new crew space transportation systems to replace the space shuttle, which was terminated in 2011. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner were developed through Public-Private Partnerships where they design, build and own the spacecraft and NASA only buys services once the spacecraft are certified as safe for NASA astronauts.

SpaceX flew its equivalent of this test flight, Demo-2, in 2020 and now routinely uses its Crew Dragon to take both NASA and private astronauts to space.

Boeing is four years behind SpaceX, but “Butch and Suni” may well became household names just like Demo 2’s crew of “Bob and Doug” — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — with this Starliner test flight.

Williams told reporters today she and Hurley were texting last night about how launch dates are not set in stone and he even said that a scrub isn’t all that bad.

One thing we were chatting about a little bit was, you know, May 6 is our launch date. There’s a lot of things between now and then.  May 6 isn’t magical. And he said, if you get a scrub, it actually is a little bit nice because it sort of takes the pressure off. — Suni Williams

Ken Bowersox, Associate Administrator for Space Operations and a former astronaut who was part of the FTRR today, made the same point. “Suni reminded us that launch dates aren’t magical. The important thing is to launch when we’re ready.”

For now, May 6 is the date, with May 7, 10 and 11 as backups.

Before they launch, however, the ISS has to be ready to receive them. Two docking ports are available — the forward port and the zenith port on the Harmony module.

Right now a Crew Dragon (for Crew-8) is at one and a Cargo Dragon (SpX-30) at the other.

The Cargo Dragon, which is at the zenith port, is getting ready to leave, but its departure has been delayed from tomorrow until at least Sunday because of poor weather in the splashdown area.

Starliner needs to use the forward port, so once Cargo Dragon is gone, Crew Dragon needs to be relocated to the zenith port. That was scheduled for April 30, but it’s not clear now when that will happen. ISS Program Manager Dana Weigel said at the media telecon they could wait as late as May 2, perhaps even May 3, but all of that is TBD.  After Crew Dragon moves, NASA needs to robotically inspect the forward port to be sure it’s ready for Starliner.

As they said, they’ll launch when they’re ready.

If all goes well, NASA will certify Starliner and the first operational flight, Starliner-1, could fly early next year. NASA wanted two crew transportation systems to provide redundancy and ensure competition. The ISS crew rotation missions take place roughly every six months and NASA will alternate between SpaceX and Boeing.

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