Two NASA astronauts who were originally scheduled to embark on an upcoming flight of Boeing’s new Starliner spacecraft have been reassigned to an upcoming SpaceX flight instead, as delays continue to push back Starliner’s next flight into space. Astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada were believed to be among the Starliner’s first human passengers on its first crewed flights in years to come. Now, they will fly together on SpaceX’s fifth crewed mission to the International Space Station, scheduled to take place in fall 2022.
Mann and Cassada were first assigned to fly the Starliner in 2018. Mann was supposed to fly on the Starliner’s first crewed test flight, along with Michael Fincke and Butch Wilmore – a critical test to prove Starliner is safe for transport people. Cassada was scheduled to make the next flight after Mann’s, Starliner’s first official crewed mission, which also includes NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Jeanette Epps. Mann and Cassada are both novice astronauts, while many other Boeing pilots have been to space before, with the exception of Epps.
However, it’s unclear when any of these Starliner missions will take place, as Boeing is still working on a valve issue with the spacecraft. With no end in sight for the fix, NASA has apparently reshuffled crew assignments so that Mann and Cassada can get their first glimpse of space as soon as possible. “Nicole and Josh have done a tremendous job paving the way for training and the way forward for astronauts to fly aboard the Boeing Starliner spacecraft,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of space operations at NASA , in a press release. “They gained experience that they will continue to train to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and serve aboard the International Space Station.” The reassignment was first reported by Ars Technica Tuesday.
Starliner is a spacecraft built by Boeing, designed to carry passengers to and from the International Space Station as part of the NASA Commercial Crew Program. The vehicle is one of two manufactured for the program; the other is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which launched its first crew of astronauts in May 2020. As part of the development process, NASA wanted each company to launch their vehicle on an unmanned test flight, followed by a test flight with a crew on board.
So far, Starliner has only flown once without passengers on board, and its first flight has not gone as planned. Upon launch, the spacecraft suffered multiple software issues, which ultimately prevented the vehicle from reaching the orbit it needed to reach to reach the International Space Station. Boeing was able to safely return the spacecraft to Earth, but NASA launched an investigation into the flight, offering a total of 80 corrective actions the agency wanted Boeing to take before continuing. NASA and Boeing agreed the company would get a resume mission, in which Starliner would be launched again with no one on board.
However, it’s still an open question when this remake will take place. Boeing was hoping to fly a passengerless Starliner again this summer and even came close to stacking the spacecraft on top of an Atlas V rocket on the launch pad. But the launch had to be postponed a few hours before takeoff after Boeing discovered problems with some of Starliner’s propulsion valves. Eventually, the company removed Starliner from its rocket and returned it to the factory for further examination. There hasn’t been a solid update on when the issue will be fixed.
“We understand the agency’s need to make adjustments so that members of the current astronaut class have experience flying on an operational vehicle while development of the Starliner spacecraft continues,” Boeing said of of the reassignment of the astronaut in a press release to The edge. “We fully support the decisions of NASA and remain committed to putting the safety of the astronauts who will fly in our vehicle first.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX has successfully completed test flights with Crew Dragon and has already completed two full passenger missions to the space station, launching a total of 10 astronauts to the ISS. The company’s next mission, called Crew-3, is scheduled to take off on October 30. SpaceX is also expected to bring its second group of passengers, Crew-2, back from the space station in mid-November.