What’s next for Boeing Starliner after first crew test?

Boeing executive Mark Nappi has a spacecraft checklist with nearly 90 items on it.

Nappi is working with NASA to pave the way for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, the first mission with astronauts on board, now set to launch on May 6.

Starliner has been to space twice in unmanned test flights in 2019 and 2022, he said, but the next step is crucial: “We are introducing humans,” Nappi told reporters here March 22 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

From launch to landing, through docking with the International Space Station (ISS) and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts will ensure that the spacecraft can perform as planned – and that it can be recovered with a stick-flying when automatic systems fail. If they succeed, the first operational Starliner mission will launch in less than a year.

Related: The First Boeing Starliner Astronauts Are Ready to Launch to the ISS for NASA (Exclusive)

CFT is a shorter mission of approximately one week, the goal of which is to test out all systems and procedures with experienced NASA astronauts (and former Navy test pilots) Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. The duo are the first astronauts to take control of Starliner since Boeing received $4.2 billion from NASA in 2014 to develop commercial crew vehicles for the ISS. (SpaceX simultaneously received $2.6 billion. SpaceX’s operational missions for the ISS with astronauts began in 2020.)

Delays in preparing Starliner for astronauts have been caused by numerous technical issues, including failing to reach the ISS in 2019 due to a software glitch, which Boeing, NASA and the CFT astronauts all say have been resolved.

However, developmental flights such as CFT carry their own risks, as key systems such as life support have not yet been tested with humans in the spacecraft. That said, NASA is maintaining a manifesto for future ISS rotational missions that, like SpaceX’s, will last six months. The first for Boeing will be the Starliner-1, expected to fly in early 2025. On board will be NASA Commander Scott Tingle, NASA Pilot Michael Fincke and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Joshua Kutryk.

Related: Boeing begins fueling the Starliner capsule ahead of the launch of the first astronaut

two cone-shaped spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, Earth in the background

two cone-shaped spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, Earth in the background

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavor (bottom center) and a visiting unmanned cargo ship Dragon (foreground) are seen docked with the International Space Station’s Harmony module in September 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

Nappi explained several milestones that will be assessed at CFT: crew comfort, human factors (or how the astronauts interact with the systems), the spacecraft’s performance during “dynamic” events such as launch or docking, and a thorough check of systems such as communications, thrusters. and navigation.

To be fair, he added, all space missions (even on experienced spacecraft) are like this, as NASA continued to make improvements to the 30-year-old Space Shuttle program even as it neared retirement in 2011, he noted. “Every mission you learn something. We expect the same from this,” he said.

Assuming that CFT’s Starliner and astronauts return on time by the end of May, Boeing is ready to immediately begin preparing the Starliner-1. “We have already started executing on these requirements and schedules so that when the vehicle returns at the end of May, we will be ready to go,” Nappi said.

two astronauts stand and laugh in spacesuitstwo astronauts stand and laugh in space suits

two astronauts stand and laugh in spacesuits

From left to right: NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Boeing Crew Flight Test pilot and commander, respectively, during a crew validation test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 18, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, praised Boeing’s progress in recent years and said the Starliner certification appears to be “on track” to complete requirements for future operational missions in November or December, assuming of a timely launch. date.

“It has to happen around that time frame before spring starts [2025] slot,” Stich said, referring to Starliner-1’s expected launch date. NASA and Boeing executives will spend the intervening months examining flight performance to see if CFT’s interim human rating certification can be expanded to Starliner-1.

Since NASA and Boeing have been working together for so many years and NASA has already successfully certified SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Stich emphasized that all players are familiar with the certification process and requirements. In fact, some items have already been closed for Starliner-1: Stich estimates that 17 Starliner-1 requirements have been completed even before CFT launches its debut space mission as an astronaut.


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More spacecraft upgrades are already in the pipeline for future Starliner missions. For example, Stich said Starliner-1 will include enhanced software to fly to both ports of the Harmony module on the ISS for docking operations (currently it is only approved to dock at the forward port).

Starliner-2, Nappi said, will fly with improved oxidation valves to address issues revealed during the first unmanned Starliner mission in 2019, called Orbital Flight Test 1. A new purge system will remove unnecessary moisture from the valves, and some connector areas are also sealed to reduce access to moisture.

Boeing’s contract with NASA calls for missions via Starliner-6. The first three missions are “under construction,” Nappi said, while the last three missions have almost all parts in stock. (A selection of parts can be ordered.) Atlas V launch vehicles are also all being prepared for those six flights.

Asked whether Boeing would consider flying private missions as SpaceX does, for clients like Axiom Space and billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Polaris Program, Nappi said NASA’s requirements come first. Assuming Boeing meets these expectations, “I think we could start looking at some of the private astronaut missions.”

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