NASA has announced that the first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has been delayed once more. In February, Boeing and NASA reported Starliner’s astronaut debut, a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) called Crew Flight Test (CFT), was on track to launch in April.
During a press conference on March 29, Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme, stated, “We’ve deliberated and decided that the best launch attempt is no earlier than July 21 for CFT.” The decision comes after considering several factors contributing to the delay, including traffic at the ISS and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
In May, Houston-based company Axiom Space plans to launch Ax-2, a private flight to the orbiting lab. Additionally, SpaceX’s next robotic cargo mission is targeted for June. These events contribute to the considerable traffic expected at the ISS in the coming months. Cape Canaveral, CFT’s launch site, will also be busy with launches planned by United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA aims to fly a mission for the U.S. Space Force with an Atlas V rocket and the first-ever liftoff of the company’s new Vulcan Centaur vehicle.
NASA wants additional time to analyze data about Starliner’s various components, such as its parachute system, before placing astronauts on the vehicle. Stich mentioned that there are no concerns with the parachute system at the moment. However, NASA and Boeing plan to conduct one more ground test of a parachute subsystem – the chute that pulls off Starliner’s forward heat shield – in May.
CFT’s goal is to send NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams to the ISS for an approximately eight-day stay. If the test flight proceeds as planned, NASA will likely certify Starliner for operational astronaut missions to the orbiting lab. Boeing signed a contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme in 2014 to fly operational missions to and from the space station with Starliner. In 2022, the company conducted two uncrewed test flights to space.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, a private American spacecraft, is already performing crewed taxi missions to the ISS for NASA. Earlier this month, Crew Dragon launched on its sixth contracted astronaut flight to the ISS. If all goes well with the upcoming Starliner test flight, NASA will have another option for transporting astronauts to and from the space station, increasing the agency’s flexibility and reducing its reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The repeated delays in Starliner’s first crewed flight highlight the challenges of developing human-rated spacecraft. However, the successful operation of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon demonstrates the potential for commercial space companies to contribute to human spaceflight missions. As the commercial space industry continues to grow and innovate, public-private partnerships like those between NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX will become increasingly critical in expanding humanity’s presence in space.