Starliner Crew Test Flight Now Targeted for May 1

Starliner Crew Test Flight Now Targeted for May 1

NASA and Boeing officials said today they are targeting May 1 for the launch of the Crew Flight Test of Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew spacecraft. If successful, the long-awaited flight could usher in an era where NASA has more than one domestic option to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station, what it calls “dissimilar redundancy.”

During a series of news conferences today, NASA and Boeing laid out the new plan for launching the Crew Flight Test, or CFT, with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, crew of the Starliner Crew Flight Test. Credit: NASA

Launch is targeted for May 1, though the schedule may change depending on the comings and goings of other vehicles. The ISS is a busy place with only a few docking ports. A change in one schedule can affect others.

For example, yesterday Russia’s launch of a crew on Soyuz MS-25 scrubbed 20 seconds before launch. They will try again tomorrow morning at 8:36 am EDT, but that delays the docking until Monday. NASA hasn’t announced any consequences for its plans, but it illustrates how schedules can abruptly change.

NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano describes ISS scheduling as “the coolest game of Tetris.”

Years ago NASA picked both SpaceX and Boeing to build space transportation systems to ferry crews to and from the ISS. It wanted two suppliers to ensure redundancy.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has been flying since 2020, but Boeing encountered obstacle after obstacle. The first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test, OFT, in 2019 was only a partial success. Boeing decided to refly that test flight at its own expense since it has a fixed price contract with NASA.

They thought they were ready to go with OFT-2 in 2021, but the launch scrubbed two hours before launch because 13 valves would not open. OFT-2 finally flew in May 2022 and NASA and Boeing were gearing up to launch this mission, CFT, last summer when new problems emerged.

Two particular concerns were the strength of “soft link” fabric sections in the parachute lines that slow the spacecraft for landing and tape wrapped around wiring harnesses inside the spacecraft and used extensively throughout the spacecraft that are flammable.

NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich and Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for Starliner Mark Nappi said today those problems are resolved.

L-R: NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich, NASA Deputy ISS Program Manager Dana Weigel, and Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi at JSC briefing the media on the upcoming CFT flight.  Screengrab, March 22, 2024.

Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Nappi said they are in the middle of loading propellant onto the spacecraft and expect to roll out to the launch pad on April 10.

The CFT mission is intended to lead to NASA certifying Starliner for operational flights by the end of this year, with Starliner-1 launching in the spring of 2025. That would be the first of six operational Starliner flights NASA and Boeing agreed to when the program began. Boeing demurs when asked if there will be additional flights beyond that.

Boeing has spent more than $1 billion of its own funds on Starliner.

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