Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft development is falling behind. SpaceX is currently the only U.S. company capable of launching astronauts safely to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Both companies are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that aims to launch rotational missions to the orbiting laboratory from American soil. Initially, the agency intended for both U.S. companies to conduct alternate crewed missions to ISS, however, Boeing’s Starliner has not completed the necessary testing to certify its spacecraft is safe to carry humans.
According to a report by ArsTechnica’s Eric Berger, NASA sources state that the agency plans to move some astronaut crew missions from Boeing's Starliner spacecraft to SpaceX's Crew Dragon due to the ongoing Starliner development delays. Boeing has faced multiple issues. In December 2019, Starliner's computer timer malfunctioned during its first demonstration mission (OFT-1) for NASA, causing it to fire its engines incorrectly and it failed to reach the proper orbit to dock to the Space Station. Boeing stated the craft did reach a stable orbit but it did not accomplish the correct altitude to be able to dock with the orbiting Station. Then the company delayed their second demonstration mission, Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), that was scheduled for December 2020.
This year, NASA and Boeing had everything ready to conduct the OFT-2 flight in August but the company’s Starliner faced another delay due to issues with the vehicle’s propulsion valves. Each month Boeing’s uncrewed Starliner test slips, Boeing falls further behind SpaceX in delivering NASA astronauts to the Space Station.
NASA’s contract with Boeing is for six total crew missions to ISS aboard Starliner, its contract with SpaceX Crew Dragon is also for six missions. SpaceX has already completed two operational crewed flights under the Commercial Crew Program, Crew-1 and Crew-2. SpaceX will also launch the third and fourth operational missions, Crew-3 and Crew-4 for NASA.
The agency announced SpaceX targets to launch Crew-3 astronauts on Saturday, October 30 at 2:43 a.m. EDT from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad-39A in Florida. A backup launch opportunity is scheduled for Halloween day on Sunday, October 31 at 2:21 a.m. EDT. Falcon 9 will propel Crew Dragon carrying NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, alongside European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer.
NASA also set a target launch date for the fourth operational mission to ISS. Crew-4 is set to launch no earlier than (NET) April 15, 2022. “Crew-4 will be commanded by Kjell Lindgren with Bob Hines as pilot, both NASA astronauts. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will be a mission specialist and command the ISS Expedition 68 crew, while the remaining crew member has yet to be named,” the agency shared in a press release. “Crew-3 astronauts are set to return to Earth in late April 2022 following a similar handover with Crew-4.”
For the following crewed mission, Crew-5, Mr. Berger reports that NASA plans to transfer rookie astronauts, who have never traveled to space, to train for a spaceflight aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9/Crew Dragon instead of Boeing’s Starliner. The Crew-5 mission would take place sometime in August 2022. Mr. Berger believes that “the most likely scenario is that Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, and Jeanette 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,” he wrote. You can read Berger's full report with more details here: ArsTechnica Report
Featured Image: SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft orbiting Earth. Source: NASA