NASA and Boeing are now targeting early 2023 for the first manned flight of Boeing’s long-delayed Starliner spacecraft, officials said at a joint news conference Thursday.
Launch officials say the mission could start as early as February, according to Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Starliner was supposed to get astronauts off the ground by the end of 2022. But continuing work on a number of key issues identified during an unmanned Starliner test flight in May pushed the schedule back.
Starliner has been behind schedule for years. It is intended to serve the same purpose as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which has been taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station since May 2020.
The issues officials identified during Starliner’s unmanned test flight included stalling with a few spacecraft thrusters that didn’t fire as intended and software issues. However, none of these issues had a major impact on the test mission, and the vehicle was still able to complete its multi-day journey to the ISS and return safely to Earth. However, officials have deemed these issues serious enough to require repairs before the crew was allowed aboard the vehicle.
Notably, the first attempt to send the Starliner on an orbital test run in late 2019 had to be aborted — the vehicle straight back to land rather than to an ISS docking station — after software problems sent the vehicle off course. It took nearly two years of troubleshooting before the Starliner was ready to return to the launch pad. Subsequently, a problem with sticky valves further delayed the capsule’s return to flight.
Despite the setbacks, NASA has held its ground behind Boeing, one of two companies — the other being SpaceX — that the space agency tapped into to build an astronaut-worthy spacecraft after the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011. While even the space agency initially expected Boeing, a decades-long partner to NASA, to beat SpaceX to the launch pad, Boeing is now at least two years behind its relative fledgling rival.
But NASA wants at least two spacecraft that can take astronauts to the ISS and back in the hopes that, if either vehicle ran into a problem that would keep it aground, there’s always a backup transportation option. But it should be noted that NASA can and will also rely on Russian-made Soyuz vehicles to get astronauts to the ISS and back. The two countries have ride-sharing agreements that allow Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronauts to share seats on either American or Russian vehicles, and that partnership has continued despite mounting geopolitical tensions.
NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams have been assigned to be the first astronauts to fly aboard Starliner next year.