Five weeks have passed since Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returned from a largely successful test flight to the International Space Station, and the company continues to review data from the mission with NASA engineers.
So far there have been no showstoppers. According to sources, Starliner’s relatively clean performance has increased the likelihood that the vehicle could make its first manned flight in December this year.
This mission, dubbed the Crew Flight Test, will likely bring two astronauts to the space station. If successful, it would pave the way for long-term, operational missions to the space station in 2023 and give NASA a coveted second resource to get astronauts into space.
Two weeks ago, NASA announced publicly that veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams would serve as the main crew for this test flight. NASA also said that a short-duration mission with two astronaut test pilots is enough to achieve all flight test objectives. However, the agency added that this mission could be lengthened 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 arises.
However, based on NASA’s internal schedules, the agency appears to be opting for a shorter six-day trip. Under a revised schedule this week, the Starliner test flight showed a launch date of December 8th, followed by docking with the space station from December 9th to 14th.
This date is far from set in stone. It may be adjusted for a variety of reasons, including ongoing verification of data from Starliner’s first test flight in May, as well as the availability of docking ports on the space station. However, the fact that such a date is now appearing in the flight plan indicates a reasonable possibility that Starliner will operate a second flight this year.
And NASA spokesman Josh Finch said the agency is unwilling to officially set a start date for Boeing’s Crew Flight Test.
“Boeing is working to provide the hardware for the company’s manned flight test this year,” said Finch. “The Starliner team is in the process of delivering the first unmanned flight test data to NASA and jointly determining further work prior to manned flight. Technical and program reviews continue, culminating in an evaluation of the launch plan toward the end of July based on spacecraft readiness, space station planning needs, and Eastern Range availability.
After that assessment, Finch said NASA plans to provide a status update that will likely include a launch target.
One of the most important factors is the availability of docking ports. There are two ports on the space station equipped with an “international docking adapter,” and they must 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 these ports: the CRS-25 and -26 cargo missions and the Crew-5 launch. However, a docking port is currently available from December 1st to January 14th. After that, SpaceX’s CRS-27 cargo mission would need the free port.
Assuming no more major delays in the launch of SpaceX vehicles, and assuming Starliner gets a clean bill of health from its data review, this window is likely when Boeing and NASA announce Starliner’s next flight will compete.