It’s been five weeks since the Boeing Starliner spacecraft returned from A Greatly successful test flight to the International Space Station, and the company continues to review data from the mission along with engineers from NASA.
So far, there have been no stops. In fact, sources say, the Starliner’s relatively clean performance has raised the likelihood that the craft will make its first manned flight this year in December.
This mission, called the Crew Flight Test, will likely carry 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 second, much-desired way to get astronauts into space.
Two weeks ago, NASA publicly announce Veteran astronauts Butch Willmore and Sonny Williams will serve as the main crew for this test flight. NASA also said that a short-term mission with two astronaut test pilots is sufficient to meet all test objectives for flight testing. However, the agency added, this mission could be extended or shortened based on the station’s staffing needs. For example, NASA said it might add an astronaut and extend the mission if the need arises.
Based on internal NASA timetables, it appears that the agency may opt for a shorter six-day flight. According to a revised schedule this week, the Starliner test flight showed a launch date of December 8, with subsequent docking at the space station from December 9 to December 14.
This history is far from written in stone. It is undergoing modification for a number of reasons, including an ongoing review of data from Starliner’s first test flight in May, as well as the availability of a docking port on the space station. However, the appearance of such a date now in the timeline indicates a reasonable possibility that Starliner will make a second flight this year.
NASA spokesman Josh Finch said the agency was not ready to set an official date for the Boeing flight test launch.
“Boeing is working to have equipment ready to support the company’s manned flight test this year,” Finch said. “The Starliner team is working to deliver initial unmanned flight test data to NASA and jointly determine pre-work before a manned flight. Program and engineering reviews are continuing, culminating in an evaluation of the launch schedule at the end of July based on spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs, and availability of the eastern term.”
After this assessment, Finch said, NASA plans to provide a status update, which will likely include a launch target.
One of the main factors is the provision of the docking port. 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. In the summer and fall, NASA currently has three SpaceX mission flights that will use those ports: the CRS-25 and -26 cargo missions and the Crew-5 launch. Currently, there is a docking port available from December 1 to January 14. Next, SpaceX’s CRS-27 cargo mission will need a backup port.
Assuming no more major launch slip for SpaceX vehicles, and assuming Starliner gets a clean bill of health from its data review, this is likely a window when Boeing and NASA go on the next Starliner flight.
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