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After endless delays, will Boeing’s $4.3 Billion Starliner get astronauts to space?

The first crewed mission was scheduled to launch in April but will now likely take place sometime this summer.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company's Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module's forward port on May 20, 2022. Source - Bob Hines/NASA, Public Domain
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company's Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module's forward port on May 20, 2022. Source - Bob Hines/NASA, Public Domain

The first crewed mission was scheduled to launch in April but will now likely take place sometime this summer.

In a tweet on March 23, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said that Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission had been delayed to some time after the launch of Axiom Space’s Ax-2 private astronaut mission to the International Space Station in early May, reports SpaceNews.

Be that as it may, Boeing’s Starliner launch was originally scheduled for February then later moved to late April, and now likely will not happen until the summer.

“We’re adjusting the Space Station schedule including the launch date for our Boeing Crew Flight Test as teams assess readiness and complete verification work,” Lueders said in her Tweet.

It has been a long, rough ride for Boeing

From the very start, delivering a crew to the ISS as part of a $4.3 billion contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has been a rough ride for Boeing.

The plan was for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to transport astronauts back and forth to the ISS, the same way that NASA’s other commercial partner SpaceX does using its Dragon capsule.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. The landing completes an abbreviated Orbital Flight Test for the company that still meets several mission objectives for NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Source – NASA/Bill Ingalls, Public Domain

Boeing unveiled the plans for the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in 2010. The new design of the Starliner was intended to be compatible with multiple launch vehicles, including the ULA Atlas V and Delta IV, and the SpaceX Falcon 9 at the time

In the meantime, SpaceX has now successfully launched its sixth astronaut crew to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Warren “Woody” Hoburg, Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyad took off in a SpaceX Falcon rocket, headed toward the ISS on Thursday, March 2.

In May 2016, Boeing delayed its first scheduled Starliner launch from 2017 to early 2018. Then in October 2016, Boeing delayed its program by six months, from early 2018 to late 2018. At the time, Boeing was hoping to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS by December 2018.

At a February 17, 2023, briefing, NASA and Boeing officials said work was on schedule for a launch in mid to late April. At the time, the next major milestone was fueling the spacecraft, which officials said they wanted to do within 60 days of the scheduled launch.

There was a considerable amount of concern over the fueling because this is what delayed the vehicle’s second uncrewed test flight by more than 10 months. That fueling was scheduled to take place in early March.

From left, NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry“Butch” Wilmore, Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) backup spacecraft test pilot, pilot, and commander, respectively, exit the Astronaut Crew Quarters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a crew validation test on Oct. 18, 2022. Source – NASA/Kim Shiflett, Public Domain

However, neither the company nor the agency had announced that fueling had taken place, and when asked about it, no clear answers were forthcoming.

“We are in the middle of final preps for the CFT flight, in the middle of closing out all of the certification work,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said in a March 11 briefing after the splashdown of the SpaceX Crew-5 mission. That included the “final phases” of flight software testing, he said.

“We really need to step back here in March and take a look at where we’re at and determine what the next steps are,” he said. “Right now we’re targeting a no-earlier-than launch date of the end of April.”

Based on when the final test of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner finally takes place, The CFT will fly NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the ISS for a mission scheduled to last eight days. It is the final flight test before NASA certifies the vehicle for use in ISS crew rotation missions starting no sooner than early 2024.

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