HomeScienceNASA likely to move some astronauts off Starliner due to extended delays

NASA likely to move some astronauts off Starliner due to extended delays

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada watch as an Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard is rolled to the launch pad ahead of the Orbital Flight Test mission in December 2019.
Enlarge / NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada watch as an Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard is rolled to the launch pad ahead of the Orbital Flight Test mission in December 2019.

NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA will not make an official announcement for weeks or months, but two sources say the space agency is moving several astronauts from Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft onto SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle for upcoming missions to the International Space Station.

The assignments are not final—they have yet to go through the formal approval process of the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel, which includes all international partners—but sources say NASA’s rookie astronauts who have not yet flown to space will move off the Boeing vehicle due to its ongoing delays.

The most likely scenario is that Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, and Jeannette Epps will now fly on the SpaceX Crew-5 mission, targeted for launch no earlier than August 2022 on a Falcon 9 rocket. They are likely to be joined by an international partner astronaut, probably Japan’s Koichi Wakata, for the mission.

These represent substantial changes for NASA and its astronauts. Mann has been assigned to the Crew Flight Test for Starliner since August 2018. This is the pivotal flight that will take place after Boeing’s upcoming uncrewed test flight of Starliner, Orbital Flight Test-2, or OFT-2. At the time of Mann’s assignment, Cassada was assigned to the first operational flight of Starliner, a regular rotation mission to the space station called “Starliner-1.” Epps was added to the Starliner-1 mission a year ago.

A NASA spokesperson, Kyle Herring, declined to confirm any information about the new assignments.

Starliner setbacks

It is probable that the NASA astronauts with flight experience currently assigned to the Crew Flight Test and Starliner-1 missions, Butch Wilmore, Michael Fincke, and Sunita Williams, will remain on those manifests for now. However, sources suggested to Ars that NASA feels it can no longer wait to get its rookie astronauts—Epps is from the class of 2009, and Mann and Cassada are from the class of 2013—some spaceflight experience.

At the time of her assignment in 2018, Mann’s flight was targeted to occur as early as 2019. Since then, however, the Starliner program has suffered a series of setbacks. An initial uncrewed test flight, OFT-1, finally got off the ground in December 2019. However due to software errors, this vehicle was nearly lost, both shortly after launch and then shortly before reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Because of its problems in flight, NASA did not clear Starliner to attempt to dock at the International Space Station, a key objective for the test flight.

This failure set off a painful 20-month process for Boeing and the astronauts awaiting their flights. NASA declared the mission a “high visibility close call” and launched an investigation into Boeing’s safety culture, demanding a major revamping of Boeing’s flight software. Boeing agreed to pay for a second test flight, at a cost of $410 million, out of its own resources. The company’s software engineers then dug into Starliner’s more than 1 million lines of code to look for errors. Finally, they tested it much more thoroughly than before.

Starliner eventually reached the launch pad in early August for the OFT-2 mission. However, just hours before the vehicle was due to launch on August 3, more than half of the 24 valves that control the flow of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer through the service module of the spacecraft malfunctioned. The launch was initially postponed a day, and then indefinitely after Boeing decided to roll Starliner back into its processing hangar for further troubleshooting.

Waiting on OFT-2

About two weeks ago NASA’s chief of human spaceflight operations, Kathy Lueders, said teams of engineers and technicians from Boeing and NASA are continuing to assess the issue with sticky valves. A new date for this OFT-2 mission has yet to be set, and Lueders indicated one may not be set any time soon. She suggested the mission probably will slip to 2022. “My gut is that it would probably be more likely to be next year, but we’re still working through that timeline,” she said.

Sources confirmed there is no date yet set for the next OFT-2 launch attempt, as the spacecraft’s valve issue has yet to be resolved. Realistically, this test flight may not happen before next spring. Because there is no certainty that this test flight will go flawlessly and because there will be an extensive data review following the flight, NASA has low confidence for when the first crew flight will take place.

As Mann will move from this Starliner Crew Flight Test to the SpaceX Crew-5 mission, set for no earlier than August, this suggests NASA believes the first Starliner crew mission will not take place before the second half of 2022. And there is no guarantee it will occur then.

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