Ars Technica’s Eric Berger reports that NASA has begun the process of moving a number of astronauts assigned to Boeing’s ailing Starliner spacecraft to a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission scheduled no earlier than August 2022.
Per sources close to Berger, NASA has chosen to reassign two rookie astronauts to Crew Dragon as hopes of a crewed Starliner launch – and thus an opportunity for them to gain hands-on spaceflight experience – in the next 6-12 months continue to wither. Barring surprises, the implied change of plans behind those actions means that SpaceX now appears to be scheduled to fly five operational NASA Crew Dragon missions back to back before Boeing’s Starliner flies a single astronaut – let alone its first operational mission with four.
In December 2019, nine months after Crew Dragon’s own uncrewed March 2019 debut, Starliner lifted off for the first time on a ULA Atlas V rocket. However, whereas Crew Dragon performed a practically flawless orbital launch, space station rendezvous, docking, departure, reentry, and splashdown on its first try, Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) went horribly wrong almost the second after it separated from Atlas V.
Due to shoddy prelaunch testing that failed to detect several gaping holes in Starliner’s software, the spacecraft effectively lost control as soon as it was under its own power. Aside from making ground communication and control far harder, Starliner burned through most of its propellant and pushed most of its maneuvering thrusters past their design limits in the first hour or two after launch. Due to the catastrophic software failure and lack of propellant margins, NASA unsurprisingly called off a planned space station rendezvous and docking attempt and Boeing ultimately ordered Starliner to reenter a few days after launch.
Mere hours before reentry, Boeing apparently detected and fixed another major software error at the last second, potentially preventing Starliner’s propulsion and service module from smashing into the capsule’s fragile heat shield and dooming the spacecraft to burn up during reentry. Ultimately, it’s likely that the only reason Boeing didn’t suffer a total loss of vehicle (LOV) during Starliner’s OFT debut spacecraft was dumb luck. Had the initial clock error been worse, Starliner could have failed to reach orbit entirely or burned through all of its propellant, resulting in an uncontrolled reentry. Had there been no clock issue, it’s hard to imagine that Boeing’s software team would have attempted the panicked, impromptu bug hunt that detected and fixed the service module recontact issue.
Now, 22 months after Starliner’s catastrophic OFT, Boeing has been forced to stand down from a second self-funded orbital flight test (OFT-2) due to the last-second discovery of more than a dozen malfunctioning valves on the second spacecraft’s service module. Aside from once raising the question of how Boeing and NASA yet again failed to detect a glaring Starliner issue until the day of launch, Starliner’s valve issues appear likely to cause another multi-month delay as Boeing is forced to investigate the problem, find the root cause, and implement a fix on all impacted service modules.
NASA reassigning some of the astronauts scheduled to helm Starliner’s Crewed Flight Test (CFT) to Crew Dragon’s August 2022 Crew-5 mission seemingly implies that the space agency is not confident that Boeing will have completed Starliner OFT-2, passed extensive post-flight reviews, and readied another Starliner for CFT by Q3 2022. Given that NASA took some 14 months to OK Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 crewed flight test after Demo-1’s March 2019 success and a catastrophic April 2019 failure during a ground test of the recovered capsule, it’s not unreasonable to assume that NASA will take about a year after OFT-2 to approve Starliner’s first crewed flight test.
If significant issues arise during OFT-2, which is now unlikely to occur before early 2022, a year-long gap is even more likely. Ultimately, that means that there is now a significant chance that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will complete not five – but six – back-to-back operational NASA astronaut launches before Starliner is ready for its first operational ferry mission. SpaceX, in other words, is now expected to singlehandedly hold the line and ensure biannual NASA access to the International Space Station (ISS) for more than two years despite the fact that SpaceX has charged NASA $2B less than Boeing (~$5B vs ~$3B) to develop Crew Dragon.