NASA revises first Starliner crew

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With a solid test flight of Boeing’s long-delayed Starliner astronaut ferry ship behind them, NASA managers Thursday made another change to the crew that will fly the capsule’s first piloted test flight, moving one astronaut off the two-person crew and moving another up to take his place.

The Starliner Crew Flight Test, or CFT, the first to carry astronauts, is not yet on NASA’s flight schedule. But mission managers are hopeful the spacecraft will be ready to go by the end of the year, assuming no major problems are found in the wake of the just-completed unpiloted test flight last month.

NASA may set a target date around the end of July, after the test flight reviews are complete.

“Engineering and program reviews are expected to continue for several weeks, culminating in a launch schedule assessment at the end of July, based upon spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs and Eastern Range availability,” NASA said in a statement.

An artist’s impression of a Boeing Starliner capsule on final approach to the International Space Station. / Credit: NASA

On board for the Crew Flight Test will be commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, a veteran astronaut assigned to the fight in 2020, and Sunita Williams, a veteran who had been in training as commander of the Starliner’s first operational mission.

Unlike the first piloted test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, which lasted 64 days, the CFT mission will be limited to about two weeks “based upon current space station resources and scheduling needs,” NASA said. The agency is holding open the option of extending the flight and adding a third crew member if needed.

Stepping down from the crew is Mike Fincke, who began training for the mission when one of the original CFT crew members, Eric Boe, stepped down for unspecified reasons in January 2019. Another original crew member, Chris Ferguson, took himself off the flight in October 2020 to spend more time with his family, and a third, Nicole Mann, was moved to a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission one year later.

NASA did not say why Fincke was reassigned, but said he will continue training as a backup test pilot “and remains eligible for assignment to a future mission.”

NASA originally planned to fly three astronauts aboard the Starliner’s first crewed mission but after problems with the spacecraft’s first unpiloted test flight in December 2019 and additional delays last year, NASA reassigned Mann to a Crew Dragon flight scheduled for launch in September.

That left Wilmore and Fincke on the CFT crew and now, Wilmore and Williams.

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