NASA swaps two astronauts from Boeing missions to SpaceX crew flight

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada view the rollout of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft before a test flight in December 2019. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA has reassigned two rookie astronauts from missions on Boeing’s troubled Starliner crew capsule to a SpaceX crew mission to the International Space Station late next year, a move agency officials said will allow the astronauts to gain spaceflight experience for future lunar expeditions.

“It was just the right time in their careers to make this change,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

NASA assigned astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada to the first two crew flights on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft in 2018.

Mann, a former U.S. Marine Corps test pilot, was slated to fly on the Starliner Crew Flight Test, the first mission with astronauts aboard Boeing’s crew spacecraft. Cassada, a former test pilot in the U.S. Navy, was assigned to the first fully operational Starliner crew flight to the space station, following the Crew Flight Test.

At that time, Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s two commercial crew transportation providers, planned to begin launching astronauts in 2019.

After delays primarily caused by parachute and abort system issues, SpaceX launched NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a test flight to the space station in May 2020 aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has now launched four crew missions, three for NASA and one with an all-private crew.

Boeing’s Starliner program still hasn’t launched any astronauts. An unpiloted test flight in December 2019 ended prematurely due to software problems. Boeing tried launching a second unpiloted demonstration mission in August, but engineers called off the launch after detecting stuck valves inside the Starliner spacecraft’s propulsion system.

Ground teams removed the Starliner spacecraft from its United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, and hauled the capsule back to its hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for troubleshooting. NASA says the demo mission, known as Orbital Flight Test-2, is not expected to launch until some time next year, forcing the Crew Flight Test to later in 2022, and the first operational Starliner mission potentially into 2023.

With the lengthy Starliner delays, NASA announced Wednesday that Mann and Cassada will fly into orbit on SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission scheduled to blast off no earlier than next fall, beginning a half-year expedition on the space station. Mann will command the mission, and Cassada will serve as the spacecraft pilot.

NASA said two other crew members, including possibly a Russian cosmonaut, will be named to SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission at a later date.

The reassignment of Mann means the Starliner Crew Flight Test will not launch with any of the original three crew members NASA and Boeing announced in 2018.

Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, now a Boeing executive, stepped down from his role as commander of the test flight last year, citing personal reasons. NASA replaced astronaut Eric Boe, a veteran space shuttle pilot, with astronaut Mike Fincke in 2019 due to a medical issue.

And now Mann has been reassigned to a SpaceX mission.

Fincke and NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore, who replaced Ferguson as commander of the Boeing Crew Flight Test, remain attached to the Starliner program. NASA astronaut Suni Williams, also an experienced space flier, is still assigned to be commander of the first operational Starliner mission to the space station.

NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps also remains assigned to the first operational Starliner mission.

NASA turned over responsibility for carrying astronauts to and from low Earth orbit to the private sector after the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. The agency selected Boeing and SpaceX for the task in 2014, awarding contracts to each company valued at $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively.

Agency officials said Wednesday they remain committed to the Boeing crew program, which will give NASA two independent U.S. vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which was the only way for U.S. crews to reach the station from 2011 until 2020, remains active carrying Russian cosmonauts to the complex.

Shifting Mann and Cassada to a SpaceX crew mission will give them spaceflight experience. They might eventually be assigned to an Artemis mission to the moon, Stich said.

“Nicole and Josh have been with Starliner for a long time,” Stich said. “We really expect our astronauts to fly on these commercial missions, and then someday, each one of those will perhaps get assigned to an Artemis mission.

“So we really wanted to get Nicole and Josh some experience and get them into space as soon as we can,” Stich said. “We have not lost confidence in the Boeing team. The team is doing an incredible job of working through the root cause on the valve issue, where we ended up delaying. .. the OFT-2 flight.

“I have every bit of confidence that that they’re going to figure out what the problem is, and they’ll rectify it, and we’ll get back to flight really soon,” Stich said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.