NASA and Boeing have announced that the first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft, which was initially scheduled for April, will now take place no earlier than July 21. The flight will carry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore. The delay is due to extra time needed to close out the pre-flight review process of Starliner and traffic from other vehicles visiting the space station in June and the first half of July.
Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, explained that most of the work will be complete in April for the flight, but there is one area extending into the May timeframe, which has to do with the certification process for the parachute system. Boeing has conducted more than 20 tests of its parachute system to ensure it performs as intended. One final test is targeted for May, which is of a parachute subsystem that pulls Starliner’s forward heat shield away and sets up deployment of the drogue and main parachutes.
The delay will also coincide with SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo resupply mission, which will tie up one of the lab’s docking hatches in June, making it necessary to push the Starliner flight to the second half of July. Additionally, NASA and Boeing must balance schedules with United Launch Alliance, which is boosting the mission to orbit with its Atlas V rocket, and presently has the USSF-51 mission scheduled for the Space Force this summer.
This will be the third flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, following the vehicle’s debut in December 2019 that failed to rendezvous with the International Space Station due to multiple issues, including software problems. After fixing these issues, Boeing flew the vehicle on a second test flight in May 2022, where Starliner docked with the space station, setting the stage for a crewed flight test. Once NASA certifies the vehicle as ready for operational missions, the company will fly approximately once a year to the space station for regular crew rotations, with the first of these missions planned for no earlier than the spring of 2024.