In anticipation of Boeing’s first crewed test flight of Starliner, NASA has chosen two astronauts to fly on board the troubled spacecraft, in a mission that could launch later this year.
On Friday, NASA announced that veteran astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore will fly on board the Crew Flight Test (CFT), the launch date of which will be determined by end of July, according to the space agency. Following the completion of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) in May, which launched the spacecraft to the ISS and back, Boeing is ready to test Starliner with a two-person crew strapped inside.
These tests are crucial for Boeing’s $US4.3 ($6) billion contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which, if all goes well, will be transporting astronauts to the ISS via a CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. But OFT-2 suffered from a few hiccups, including the failure of a thruster used for orbital manoeuvring, not to mention the slew of problems and delays that have marred the program. Still, NASA seems intent on following through with Boeing’s Starliner, despite purchasing five additional missions from SpaceX, the agency’s other commercial partner, which has been flying astronauts to the ISS since 2020.
For the first CFT, Wilmore, who spent six months on the ISS from 2014 to 2015, will command the mission, while Williams, who served on two long duration ISS missions from 2006 to 2007 and again in 2012, will pilot Boeing’s reusable capsule. NASA had to reshuffle its inaugural Starliner crew, replacing NASA astronaut Nicole Mann with Williams. Mann was instead assigned to SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission, which is scheduled for launch in September. NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who was previously assigned as the Joint Operations Commander for CFT, will now be training as a backup pilot for the first CFT mission.
“Based upon current space station resources and scheduling needs, a short duration mission with two astronaut test pilots is sufficient to meet all NASA and Boeing test objectives for CFT, which include demonstrating Starliner’s ability to safely fly operational crewed missions to and from the space station,” NASA wrote in a statement.
Boeing’s Starliner will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. If all goes well, NASA could certify Starliner for regular, long-duration crewed missions to the ISS.