According to Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, launch officials say the mission could launch as early as February.
Starliner was scheduled to lift astronauts by the end of 2022. But ongoing work on several major issues that were identified during the Starliner’s uncrewed test flight in May pushed back the schedule.
Starliner is already several years behind schedule. It is designed for the same purpose as the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that has been taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station since May 2020.
Problems that officials identified during the uncrewed test flight of the Starliner included freezing of several of the spacecraft’s engines that did not turn on as intended, and software problems. However, none of these problems seriously affected the test mission, and the vehicle was still able to complete the multi-day journey to the ISS and return safely to Earth. However, officials deemed these problems serious enough to require rectification before allowing the crew to board the vehicle.
It is noteworthy that the first attempt to send Starliner on an orbital test launch in late 2019 had to be aborted – to send the device directly to the ground, and not to dock with the ISS – after software problems caused the device to veer off course. It took almost two years of troubleshooting before the Starliner was ready to return to the launch pad. Then a problem with stuck valves further delayed the capsule’s return to flight.
Despite its setbacks, NASA backed Boeing, which is one of two companies (the other being SpaceX) that the space agency used to build an astronaut-worthy spacecraft after the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. While even the space agency initially expected Boeing, NASA’s longtime partner, to outpace SpaceX on the launch pad, Boeing is now at least two years behind its relative upstart competitor.
But NASA wants at least two spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to and from the ISS, in the hope that if any of the ships run into a problem that keeps them on the ground, there’s always a back-up transport option. But it should be noted that NASA can and does use Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. The two countries have ride-sharing agreements that allow Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronauts to share seats in US or Russian vehicles, and the partnership continues despite rising geopolitical tensions.
NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams have been named the first astronauts to fly aboard Starliner next year.