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Boeing’s Starliner faces another launch slip, this time in late July

The first piloted flight of Boeing’s Starliner space shuttle is slipping from late April to at least July 21, officials said Wednesday, to allow more time to close paperwork and conduct additional tests of the spacecraft’s parachute deployment system.

Years behind schedule, the Crew Flight Test, or CFT, mission will carry two veteran astronauts — Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams — to the International Space Station to verify the craft’s readiness to begin ferrying crews to the laboratory on a regular basis. Complex, an alternative to SpaceX’s already operational Crew Dragon.


Boeing engineers attach a Starliner crew capsule to its propulsion and service module in preparation for the company’s first test flight of an astronaut ferry ship. That flight, carrying two NASA astronauts, is now targeted for launch before July 21.


NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said there was nothing wrong with the Starliner’s parachute system and “when we look at the vehicle, the Starliner spacecraft is in really good shape. … The Atlas launch vehicle is ready to fly.”

But reviewing the necessary paperwork to officially clear the spacecraft for flight, adding another ground test and fitting the flight into the busy East Coast launch schedule, pushed the long-awaited mission from the spring to mid-summer deadline.

“When we look at all the different pieces, most of the work will be finished for the flight in April,” Stich said. “But there is one area that extends into the May frame. And that’s really related to certification products for parachute systems.

“And so, as we were looking at where to go with the (launch) date, trying to thread the needle on the (Space Force) Eastern Range and then clear considerations for the ISS, we decided that the best attempt to launch is no earlier than July 21.”

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts in 2014 to build commercial crew ships that could ferry NASA and partner agency astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX, under an initial $2.6 billion contract, has designed a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship that will ride into orbit atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Boeing designed its own capsule — the Starliner — under a $4.2 billion contract that relies on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets to travel into orbit.

After a successful unmanned test flight, SpaceX launched a two-man crew to the space station in May 2020. The agency has now launched nine piloted Crew Dragon missions, seven for NASA and two privately funded flights, ending the country’s sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz. Spacecraft to enter low-Earth orbit.

Boeing had hoped to launch its first crew in 2020 as well, but the company ran out Major software issues During an unmanned test flight in December 2019. After solving Unexpected problems with corroded propulsion system valvesAnother test flight Launched in May 2022.


Boeing’s Starliner docked with the International Space Station during an unmanned test flight in May 2022.


This time, Starliner completed its main mission, robotically docking with the space station as planned. At that point, NASA was aiming for a pilot launch later that year.

But additional analysis and reviews pushed the flight to 2023, and after several more slips, it has now been moved to July, assuming the necessary work can be completed in time and planners resolve a launch date conflict with another Atlas 5 mission.

As for the Starliner’s parachute system, Stich said “there’s really no problem or concern. These parachutes are installed on the vehicle, they’re in good condition, it’s just a matter of going through all that data and making sure we’re really. Ready to fly safely.”

Additional ground tests were added to ensure that a protective heat shield on the top of the spacecraft would deploy correctly under high-pressure ejection conditions to enable the release of the parachutes necessary to slow the vehicle during landing.

“We’re going to do an experiment at the highest possible (stress) setting that they can see a miscarriage at,” Stich said. “And so we’ll do that test on the ground, just to make sure the system can deploy properly.”

Assuming crew flight tests go well and Starliner wins NASA certification, the agency plans to launch two commercial crew flights to the space station each year, one using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and the other Boeing’s Starliner.

With two operational crew ferry ships available, NASA astronauts are guaranteed access to the space station even if one of the two spacecraft has problems.

“Having a second crew transport capability for the space station is very important to us,” Stich said. “And so we’re working really hard on it.”

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William Harwood


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