NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore could finally hitchhike to the ISS aboard Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on July 21, but tests of the capsule’s parachute system threaten to delay even further the embattled project.
Starliner’s first crewed mission and third flight overall have a launch date, but you’ll have to excuse my apprehension, given the project’s very unfortunate history. The $4.3 billion Starliner is years behind schedule, and we’ve already had to endure two schedule bumps this year only; The Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) was scheduled to take off in February, but that was pushed back to March and then again to July 21, as NASA confirmed today in a press briefing.
Starliner is “mostly ready to fly,” NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich told reporters. The main hurdle, he said, is certification work that still needs to be completed, including some ground testing associated with the capsule’s parachute system. Traffic to the ISS is about to get busy, Stich added, citing another reason for the delay. Axiom Space’s planned private mission to the ISS, as well as an upcoming cargo mission, meant that “late July is a good time to fly Starliner,” he said.
These parachute tests sound ominous – exactly the sort of thing that could further delay the CFT mission. Naturally, Stich did his best to minimize testing, saying the team had “no issues or concerns” with the parachute systems and it was just a matter of reviewing the data to ensure safety. Mark Nappi, Boeing Commercial Crew program manager, said he also felt confident about the parachutes and did not expect any surprises, he told reporters.
Assuming all goes as planned, ground crews will begin the refueling process approximately 40 days before launch. In terms of completed patches, Nappi cited a logic error that appeared in a emergency manual flight mode during ground simulations with the crew, which he said was simple to fix with a slight modification to the vehicle. That said, the team now wants to make sure that this issue “doesn’t exist anywhere else and is an isolated case.”
Starliner is one of two spacecraft included in NASA’s commercial crew program, with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon being the other. Dragon has been in operation for three years, while Starliner is still undergoing certification. A steady stream of technical problems kept the Boeing project from getting off the ground, but the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) testing at the ISS went reasonably well, in which was an encouraging sign.
The CFT mission will last at least eight days, Stich and Nappi confirmed, but extensions are possible if the situation allows and further testing is warranted. As for the existing ISS crew, Montalbano said the current plan is to return NASA astronaut Frank Rubio to a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on September 27. If the plan sticks, Rubio will have spent 371 consecutive days aboard the ISS, setting a new record for an American astronaut.
Rubio was originally supposed to return to the MS-22 Soyuz spacecraft, but the capsule’s radiator unexpectedly leaked its coolant in December, making the vehicle unsafe for a crew. THE the unmanned MS-22 returned to Earth yesterdaywith unverified reports suggesting that internal temperatures reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) inside the cabin.
Asked about it during today’s briefing, Montalbano said he saw the report but was given different information by the technical team. He plans to speak with his Russian colleagues to better understand what happened so NASA can make decisions about future crew returns. He promised to get back to reporters in about two to three weeks and possibly even hold a briefing on the subject that would include a “surgeon” to discuss the potential health risks to astronauts when exposed to heat and such extreme humidity inside the capsule. Until his team speaks with Roscosmos, however, discussions of conditions inside MS-22 remain speculation, Montalbano added.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the logic error occurred during Orbital Flight Test 2, when it actually occurred during ground simulations.