The first manned flight of Boeing’s Starliner space capsule is scheduled for February 2023, the company and NASA announced Thursday, as the United States seeks to secure its astronauts a second route to reach the International Space Station.
Since 2020, American astronauts have been traveling to the ISS aboard SpaceX ships, but the US space agency wants to expand its options.
After a series of hiccups in its space program that led to serious delays, including a 2019 flight that missed the ISS, Boeing finally managed to send the gummy candy-shaped capsule to the station in May — unmanned.
This time, the aerospace giant will send up the Starliner with people on board to get the green light from NASA to start regular missions – at an expected pace of one a year.
“We are currently targeting a launch date as early as February 2023,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters.
“We are in good shape to execute on these plans to be ready for this flight in February,” added Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager.
The test flight – aptly called the CFT, or Crew Flight Test – will carry US astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams.
They are expected to be docked with the ISS for eight days, where they will conduct a series of experiments, ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said.
“Our agency goal is to get two commercial providers up and running in the US as quickly as possible.”
Boeing had hoped to conduct this test flight before the end of the year, but some glitches encountered in the May unmanned flight resulted in necessary adjustments to the ship.
A problem was identified in the propulsion system: two engines responsible for putting Starliner into stable orbit failed, although officials insisted ample redundancy was built into the system to address the problem.
Boeing’s teams later determined that “debris-related conditions” were to blame, Nappi said, adding that the origin of that debris was still unknown.
Some filters were removed to fix a printing issue and the flight software was updated to avoid data overload.
Boeing and SpaceX received orders in 2014, shortly after the end of the space shuttle program, at a time when the United States relied on Russian Soyuz rockets for trips to the ISS.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX first filled the gap, offering a space “taxi” service since a successful test mission for its Dragon capsule in 2020.
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