Boeing’s Astronaut Mission To Catch Up With SpaceX Is Delayed Again

Ramish Zafar
Boeing Starliner
The Boeing Starliner rendered performing an orbit of Earth. Image: Boeing

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) first crewed flight on the Starliner spacecraft has been delayed yet again revealed the agency in a press release earlier today. The Starliner is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) that has seen the company make successively successful flights to the International Space Station (ISS) with SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. NASA's statement, released earlier today, outlined that the reason behind the delay is to make room for upcoming missions to the ISS. This delay also means that the first operational mission for the spacecraft, which had previously been estimated to take place at the end of next year's third quarter will also likely move forward.

Boeing's First Crewed Mission To ISS Likely Delayed To Make Room For SpaceX Mission

The CCP has so far seen six successful crewed ISS flights, out of which the first one took to the skies in 2020 when NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley launched on the Crew Dragon as part of the DM-2 mission. This mission aimed to test the spacecraft's capabilities, and the Boeing mission which is now delayed would also have seen the astronauts test the spacecraft before it could be certified for human spaceflight.

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This spacecraft has seen a variety of delays so far, some of which have involved its software systems and valves. The first delay came in 2019 when the spacecraft successfully launched but it was unable to dock with the ISS due to software problems that would have caused the spacecraft to be destroyed had they not been caught by the ground teams. After taking two years to fix, the next launch was delayed last year, when faulty propulsion valves led to NASA and Boeing canceling the attempt.

However, Starliner successfully docked with the ISS earlier this year, which then paved the way for its first crewed flight in February.

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft pictured in NASA's facilities in March this year. Image: Boeing

As part of its statement, NASA outlined that it is working on some anomalies with the spacecraft ahead of the crewed launch, and it also shared that the launch will now come in April 2023. Importantly, the flight test's software has also been qualified by Boeing, and the astronauts that will be part of the mission have also finished testing the spacecraft's crewed module to ensure that they will be able to fly comfortably in it.

This mission will see the astronauts work on the ISS for two weeks, as the Starliner spacecraft is tested. These tests include evaluating the ship's solar panels, its life support systems, its communications system, software and the propulsion components that are responsible for orienting it with the space station for docking and then ensuring that it moves away safely for the return journey to Earth.

A crucial component is a heatshield, and SpaceX's DM-1 mission, which had tested the Crew DRagon saw the company identify unseen heat shield anomalies after the Dragon returned to Earth. SpaceX officials stressed that this was not a threatening event, and the astronauts on the spacecraft were safe during all times. NASA is aiming to complete the first Starliner crewed mission before setting the date for the succeeding mission that will mark its first flight as it takes time to review the data from the spacecraft. This process generally takes a couple of months, and it took a little more than two months for the first operational Crew Dragon mission after Behnken and Hurley returned to Earth.

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