NASA targets April for Boeing Starliner's first astronaut launch

NASA is shifting its astronaut launch schedule in the spring as Boeing completes the final tasks needed to launch crew on the Starliner spacecraft.

In May 2022, Boeing completed the orbital flight test for Starliner without astronauts onboard. The spacecraft launched to the International Space Station and returned to Earth, completing the final critical test before NASA gave the green light to launch crew.

The Crewed Flight Test with NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore was slated to launch from Florida in July of this year. However, in June, Boeing managers revealed two new issues with Starliner discovered late in the review process, and the July launch was delayed indefinitely. In August, Boeing leaders said the corrective actions could be completed, and the spacecraft would be ready to fly in March 2024.

On Monday, NASA officials said they are targeting an April launch for Starliner to "better accommodate upcoming crew rotations and cargo resupply missions this spring."

NASA is targeting SpaceX's launch of the Crew-8 mission in mid-February with three NASA astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut. The astronauts for the Crew-9 launch in mid-August have yet to be announced. 

Boeing works to complete Starliner corrections

Since the issues were discovered, Boeing teams have removed pounds of flammable P13 tape from the spacecraft's upper dome and are working to remove the tape from the lower dome of the spacecraft. NASA said this process should be complete within the next few weeks.

Another issue discovered this summer involved the parachutes used to slow the spacecraft for landing back on Earth. Small sections of the lines that run from Starliner to the parachutes, called soft links, were retested because Boeing engineers believed the data was recorded incorrectly and that the lines have a lower failure limit. That theory was confirmed through additional testing.

NASA said a set of new parachutes will be delivered and installed by the end of the year. Boeing plans to conduct a drop test of Starliner's updated chutes in early 2024.

Other work related to the spacecraft's software and items required for the flight test has continued into the fall. 

NASA said the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is awaiting its spacecraft at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. When it happens, Starliner will launch from Launch Complex 41.

Meanwhile, Williams and Wilmore continue to train for their 8-day mission to the ISS.