During a media teleconference on August 7, 2022, NASA and Boeing declared that the Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) spacecraft will be ready for launch by March 2024. The target launch date for the first crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS) has not yet been defined, taking into account the United Launch Alliance and the ISS schedule.
Yesterday, leaders from @NASA and @BoeingSpace discussed the path forward for the #Starliner spacecraft. The Starliner team expects to have the Crew Flight Test spacecraft ready in March 2024 with a specific target launch date to follow. https://t.co/CZ3Y3uEfIf pic.twitter.com/AZBx3rpyVt— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) August 8, 2023
Starliner’s troubled path to space
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft has experienced several technical issues since its unveiling in 2010, leading to a noticeable delay in the project roadmap each time. The most significant problem occurred during the first Orbital Flight Test (OFT-1), which was terminated before docking to the ISS.
As a result of OFT-1 learnings, the Starliner program has suffered three years of delay. However, a second and nearly successful test (OFT-2) in May 2022, enabled it to get back in the game for a test flight with astronauts.
The OFT-2 mission still highlighted a new list of technical issues that need to be fixed before planning the first crewed flight, causing the latest drawbacks. Initially set as an indefinite delay, NASA and Boeing have now quantified in 9 months the time needed to implement the required fixes and have the capsule qualified to fly astronauts to the ISS.
A hopeful future for Starliner
The most critical problems are related to the parachute system, although the change is considered to be minor, and with an inflammable protective tape to be replaced. The capsule will undergo a single drop test to verify the improvements, limiting the new stop to just a few months.
“When we looked at the changes that we’re talking about, we felt like we only needed one test”— Mark Nappi, Boeing vice president and program manager for Starliner
If everything goes according to plan, the first CFT mission could occur in spring 2024, but there is a real possibility of a delay to 2025 due to conflicts with the ISS’s mission schedule.
Even in the event of a move to 2025 for CFT-1, Boeing has confirmed its commitment to carry out the six crewed flights to the ISS stipulated under the Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The only limit will be the ISS lifetime since the station’s retirement is set for 2030.
In this regard, it’s important to highlight that since the beginning of NASA’s CCP, SpaceX has completed the agreed-upon 6 flights and is proceeding with the seventh. Fitting six launches in five years is possible, but the time is running out.