NASA has made a rare change to its spaceflight roster. After initially being slated to go into space aboard the Boeing Starliner, two astronauts have been moved to an upcoming SpaceX Dragon launch. This will get the rookie astronauts into space sooner than if they waited on Starliner, which is still being retooled following an issue with fuel valves several months ago. This move does not bode well for Boeing’s efforts, though.
Initially, astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada were scheduled to go up on two different Starliner flights. Mann was supposed to fly on the first Starliner crewed test flight, and Cassada was on the crew for the first full Space Station mission. There’s no word on when these missions could take place, and it has been several weeks since we got an update on Starliner. Since neither Mann nor Cassada has been to space before, NASA wants to ensure they get some experience rather than keeping them on the ground for an eventual Boeing launch.
NASA skirted the issue of Starliner delays when announcing the change. “Nicole and Josh have done a tremendous job pioneering the training and path forward for astronauts to fly on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. They have gained experience that they will take forward as they train to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and serve aboard the International Space Station,” said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA. Both will join SpaceX Crew-5, the fifth regular crewed flight for Elon Musk’s NASA-certified spacecraft. Mann will be the spacecraft commander and Cassada will be the pilot. Two additional slots on the mission remain to be filled.
SpaceX Crew-5 is currently on the books for about a year from now. That could be telling of Boeing’s progress as it works to fix Starliner. It implies that fall 2022 is the faster route for Mann and Cassada to reach space. Does that mean the Starliner flights won’t be happening until 2023? That would be a major embarrassment for Boeing, which has a long and storied history in American spaceflight. Last we heard, Boeing was considering whether or not to disassemble the vessel’s fuel system to inspect the backside of several stuck valves.
Starliner was on the launchpad earlier this year for Boeing’s second attempt at an orbital flight test (OFT-2). The first attempt in 2019 failed due to computer glitches that prevented the spacecraft from rendezvousing with the space station. Boeing needs to ace the do-over and then complete a crewed test before it can begin flying regular missions. SpaceX has already been doing so since last year.