Five weeks have passed since Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returned from a test flight largely successful to the International Space Station, and the company continues to review mission data with NASA engineers.
So far, there have been no sensational ones. In fact, sources say, Starliner’s relatively clean performance has raised the possibility that the vehicle could make its first manned flight this year in December.
This mission, called Crew Flight Test, will likely carry two astronauts to the space station. If successful, it would clear the way for long-duration operational missions to the space station in 2023 and give NASA a much-coveted second means of launching astronauts into space.
Two weeks ago, NASA publicly announced that veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams would serve as the prime crew for this test flight. NASA also said that a short-duration mission with two astronaut test pilots is enough to meet all test objectives for the flight test. However, the agency added, this mission could be extended or shortened depending on the station’s staffing needs. For example, NASA said it could even add an astronaut and extend the mission if the need arose.
However, based on internal NASA schedules, it appears the agency may opt for a shorter six-day trip. In a revised schedule this week, the Starliner test flight showed a launch date of December 8, with a subsequent docking at the space station December 9-14.
This date is far from being set in stone. It’s subject to adjustment for a variety of reasons, including the ongoing review of data from Starliner’s first test flight in May, as well as docking port availability on the space station. However, that such a date now appears on the schedule indicates a reasonable possibility that Starliner will make a second flight this year.
A NASA spokesman, Josh Finch, said the agency was not ready to formally set a launch date for the Boeing crew flight test.
“Boeing is working to be hardware ready in support of the company’s manned flight test this year,” Finch said. “The Starliner team is in the process of delivering initial uncrewed flight test data to NASA and jointly determining work ahead of manned flight. Engineering and program reviews continue, culminating in an evaluation of the flight schedule. launch toward the end of July based on spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs, and Eastern Ridge availability.”
Following this evaluation, Finch said, NASA plans to provide a status update, which will likely include a launch target.
One of the main factors is the availability of the docking port. There are two ports on the space station equipped with an “international docking adapter” and they are to be shared by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon 2 and Starliner. This summer and fall, NASA currently has three SpaceX mission flights that will use those ports: the CRS-25 and -26 cargo missions and the Crew-5 launch. Currently, however, there is a docking port available from December 1 to January 14. After this, SpaceX’s CRS-27 cargo mission would need the spare port.
Assuming there are no more major launch delays for SpaceX vehicles, and assuming Starliner gets a clean bill of health from its data review, this window is likely when Boeing and NASA will opt for the next Starliner flight.
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