NASA could launch astronauts aboard Boeing's Starliner for the first time in July

Though the US space agency has flagged 'emerging issues' that must be resolved before the Crew Flight Test mission.
Chris Young
CST-100 Starliner during Orbital Flight Test-2.
CST-100 Starliner during Orbital Flight Test-2.

NASA Johnson 

NASA and Boeing provided an update on the first crewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner capsule, stating that they are still aiming for a July launch.

This is despite the fact that a safety panel recently raised "emerging issues" and concerns regarding the crew capsule.

Boeing's Starliner program is years behind schedule and it has racked up a budget exceeding $4 billion. If all goes to plan, though, it could soon reduce NASA's reliance on SpaceX's Crew Dragon for crewed missions to the International Space Station.

Starliner's first crewed test flight

NASA and Boeing announced in a press statement on Friday, May 26, that they had completed a "checkpoint review" of preparations for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, which is scheduled for no earlier than July 21.

For the upcoming mission, two NASA astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will fly aboard Starliner to the ISS on the first crewed flight for the spacecraft.

Starliner has flown to orbit twice before. The crew capsule failed to reach the ISS on its first attempt. During its second attempt a year ago, Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2, it docked with the orbital station. Now, NASA and Boeing state that they have completed 95 percent of the certification work needed for the first crew mission, CFT.

"We are taking a methodical approach to the first crewed flight of Starliner incorporating all of the lessons learned from the various in-depth testing campaigns," Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, explained in the statement. “In addition to the closeout of ongoing work, the team remains vigilant on tracking new technical issues as we complete certification for crewed flight."

Starliner will only fly astronauts "when ready"

The same statement also flagged "emerging issues that need a path to closure" before the mission goes ahead. These issues include a valve in the spacecraft's thermal control system that was reducing flow in one of two redundant loops tasked with cooling the vehicle's avionics.

This issue should take a week to fix, however, NASA and Boeing explained, meaning it shouldn't affect the launch of CFT. It does, though, raise the concern that other issues may arise closer to launch. The team is also revising the efficiency of joints in the capsule's parachute system in order to ensure they are up to standard for crewed launches.

Once NASA and Boeing are certain they wish to go ahead with the launch, they will fuel the spacecraft 60 days ahead of the mission.

Back in May 2020, Demo-2, the first crewed flight of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, ended NASA's almost decade-long reliance on Russian launch vehicles to take humans to the ISS. If all goes to plan, Boeing could soon end NASA's reliance on SpaceX.

However, the space agency won't be rushed into the first crewed test flight for Starliner. In the NASA and Boeing statement, Stich did state that the July launch date is not set in stone. "If a schedule adjustment needs to be made in the future, then we will certainly do that as we have done before. We will only fly when we are ready."

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