Starliner CFT To Fly in March 2024 at the Earliest

Starliner CFT To Fly in March 2024 at the Earliest

Boeing’s Mark Nappi said today that the Starliner Crew Flight Test will be ready to go in March 2024, but fitting it into the busy space station and United Launch Alliance schedules will be complicated. Boeing had planned to launch CFT in July, but additional technical problems emerged in May leading to an indefinite delay.

Nappi and NASA’s Steve Stich and Joel Montalbano briefed the media via telecon this afternoon. NASA picked Boeing in 2014 as one of two companies to develop new “commercial crew” transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station through Public-Private Partnerships.

Competitor SpaceX has been launching astronauts on Crew Dragon since 2020, but Starliner has suffered one delay after another. So far it has only gotten as far as an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test, which had to be repeated after a partial failure in December 2019. The reflight, OFT-2, was scheduled for August 2021, but about two hours before launch 13 propulsion valves would not open, delaying it until March 2022, two-and-a-half years after the first attempt.

Next is a test flight with a crew — NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams in training for the Starliner Crew Flight Test. Photo credit: NASA

In May as Boeing was getting ready for a July CFT launch, it discovered that miles of tape used to wrap electrical wiring harnesses in the spacecraft was flammable. In addition, a joint on the parachutes needed to bring Starliner back to a safe landing on Earth did not meet safety standards.

The uncrewed Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 spacecraft lands at White Sands, New Mexico, May 25, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

The message today, as it has been in previous briefings, was that progress is being made, safety is the priority, and they will launch when they’re ready.

Nappi, Boeing’s Vice President and Program Manager for Starliner, outlined the steps they’re taking to remediate the flammable tape situation, removing and replacing it wherever possible and using other methods where that’s not practicable, and to fix the parachute joint. They have a solution for the joint and will test it in November. They were planning an upgrade to the parachutes for the first operational flight, Starliner-1, in any case and have decided to replace those on CFT with the type that will be on that next flight. Nappi said parachute delivery is the pacing item for the CFT launch.

Starliner is a fixed price contract so Boeing must absorb the additional costs and they have surpassed $1 billion already.

Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has been steadfastly upbeat throughout Starliner’s travails and today was no exception. He praised the progress being made by the NASA-Boeing team and said he sees nothing but total commitment from Boeing up to its highest corporate levels to stick with the program.

As part of the PPP, NASA agreed to purchase six flights from Boeing with the idea of alternating them with launches of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, one of each per year. NASA is eager to have both systems operational to ensure redundancy throughout ISS’s lifetime, currently set to end in 2030.

NASA hopes commercial companies will have their own space stations operating in Earth orbit to continue U.S. human presence in Earth orbit, so ISS is not the only destination for Starliner, which is good because as the delays continue, it’s not clear if there will be six opportunities to send Starliner to ISS. NASA must certify the system as safe for its astronauts. CFT is final step in that process. If all goes well, and if a March launch opportunity arises, it’s possible Starliner-1 could happen late in 2024, but might well slip to 2025.

Stich demurred when asked that question today, saying he won’t have a good idea of when Starliner-1 might fly until after CFT.

Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager, is the one who will have to find a spot in the busy ISS schedule for Starliner to visit ISS. He pointed out that Russia usually conducts its own crew rotation missions in March, and then there are the routine cargo flights of Russia’s Progress and U.S. Cygnus and Cargo Dragon spacecraft not to mention spacewalks.  Starliner launches on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and ULA has its own busy schedule. As Nappi said, it’s complicated.

The International Space Station, a very busy place. Credit: NASA

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.