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Cosmic Space

Boeing astronaut chooses family over Starliner flight

Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded NASA’s final space shuttle mission nine years ago, says he’s passing up his chance to be on the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi next year.

Ferguson, who is director of mission integration and operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, tweeted that he’s taking on a “new mission” that prioritizes “my most important crew — my family.”

The 56-year-old former astronaut told Space News that he didn’t make his decision lightly: “It surrounds what has really amounted to a year that is replete with family obligations that I just do not want to risk missing,” he said. Among those obligations, according to The Associated Press, is his daughter’s wedding.

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, who has served as a backup spaceflier during Starliner training, will take Ferguson’s place.

“Butch will be able to step in seamlessly, and his previous experience on both space shuttle and space station missions make him a valuable addition to this flight,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

The other astronauts due to make the trip to the International Space Station next year are NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. Fincke joined the crew last year when NASA astronaut Eric Boe had to bow out due to unspecified medical reasons.

Ferguson had been looking forward to his Starliner trip for years. He joined Boeing soon after his final shuttle flight in 2011 and played a high-profile role in the Starliner effort — going so far as to help CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert try on Boeing’s spacesuit in 2017.

If the development timeline for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner had been glitch-free, Ferguson and his crewmates might well have been in space by now. But last December, an uncrewed demonstration flight to the space station went awry due to software problems. As a result, NASA and Boeing had to pass up the station docking and end the flight early.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was able to proceed with the first crewed flight of its Crew Dragon capsule in May, beating Boeing to the punch.

After a months-long investigation, NASA and Boeing decided that another uncrewed test mission would have to be flown at Boeing’s expense. That mission is expected to take place late this year or early next year. If all goes well, a crewed flight will follow in mid-2021.

Ferguson said he has “full confidence in the Starliner vehicle, the men and women building and testing it, and the NASA astronauts who will ultimately fly it.” And he hinted that he wouldn’t mind getting another chance to go into space once he takes care of his family obligations.

“I’ve been asked what this means long-term: Does it mean that I’m leaving or does it mean that I’m staying and I just can’t do this,” he told Space News. “I just cannot launch next year. You can read into that as you see fit.”

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Boeing reworks team for space station and Starliner

Mulholland and Bridenstine
Boeing’s John Mulholland gives a briefing to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a visit to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2018. Hardware for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi can be seen in the background. (NASA Photo / Kim Shiflett)

As a new commercial-centric era dawns for the International Space Station, Boeing is realigning its top managers for the space station program — and for the program that’s working to send Starliner capsules there and back.

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Boeing teams up with Varjo on Starliner VR

Boeing's Connie Miller with VR headset
Boeing software engineer Connie Miller tries out the Varjo virtual-reality system to control a computer-generated Starliner space taxi. (Varjo / Boeing Photo)

Boeing isn’t due to start flying NASA crews to the International Space Station until next year, but in the meantime, astronauts can steer a computer-generated Starliner space taxi with the aid of Varjo’s virtual-reality headsets.

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Boeing says it’ll redo uncrewed Starliner flight

Starliner
An artist’s conception shows Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi in orbit. (Boeing Illustration)

Boeing says it will redo the uncrewed test flight of its Starliner space taxi to the International Space Station, after months of reviewing what went wrong during a flight that fell short of the mark. NASA said it supported Boeing’s decision.

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Starliner mission review turns up 61 flaws to fix

Starliner space taxi
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi sits on its airbags after landing in New Mexico at the end of its uncrewed test flight in December. (NASA Photo)

NASA and Boeing officials say an independent review of December’s uncrewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi has identified 61 corrective actions that will need to be taken.

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Boeing acknowledges Starliner’s shortcomings

Starliner inspection
Engineers inspect the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that went through a less-than-perfect test flight in December. (Boeing Photo)

The program manager for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi acknowledges that more rigorous testing might have turned up the software glitch that spoiled plans to rendezvous with the International Space Station during an uncrewed test flight in December.

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Boeing’s software missteps spark NASA review

Starliner landing
Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel put a protective cover over Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after its Dec. 22 landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

An interim assessment of what went wrong during December’s first uncrewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi has turned up so many breakdowns that NASA is ordering a comprehensive safety review of the company’s procedures.

NASA and Boeing provided a status report on the Starliner post-flight reviews today, after concerns were raised publicly this week during a meeting of the space agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

“We are 100% committed to transparency,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters during a teleconference.

This week’s revelations add to concerns about engineering shortcomings in other lines of Boeing’s business — including commercial airplanes, where a software issue and lapses in training procedures led to two catastrophic crashes and the worldwide grounding of 737 MAX jets; and military airplanes, where Boeing is having to retrofit Air Force KC-46 tankers to fix a design flaw.

Douglas Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, alluded to those shortcomings as he discussed the decision he made with Bridenstine’s support to order a wider safety review. “There were several factors that were in my mind when I asked the boss if we could do this,” he said. “And those were obviously press reports that we’ve seen from other parts of Boeing, as well as what seemed to be characterized as these software issues.”

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NASA and Boeing lay out Starliner schedule

Boeing Starliner on the road
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule, which was christened Calypso after last month’s test flight, is wrapped in plastic for transport back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Boeing Photo)

NASA says it’s working with Boeing to set up an independent investigation team to review last month’s less-than-perfect maiden flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi, and is considering whether another uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station will be required.

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Starliner makes flawless landing after flawed flight

Starliner landing
Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel put a protective cover over Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after its landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi made a flawless automated landing in New Mexico today, marking the end of an orbital test flight that was cut short due to a glitch with the craft’s timing system.

Because of the glitch, NASA and Boeing had to forgo Starliner’s planned trip to the International Space Station. But the uncrewed transport notched a first in space history nevertheless by becoming the first crew-capable U.S. space capsule to make its return from orbit on land.

The spacecraft also got its christening from NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who is scheduled to fly on the craft after its refurbishment.

“A little homage to other explorers and the ships that they rode on,” Williams said during a NASA webcast. “I think we’re going to call her Calypso.”

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NASA, Boeing trace roots of Starliner’s bad timing

Starliner
An artist’s conception shows Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi in orbit. (Boeing Illustration)

NASA and Boeing say they’ve learned more about the timing glitch that kept Boeing’s uncrewed CST-100 Starliner space taxi from making its planned rendezvous with the International Space Station — and they’re getting “an enormous amount of data” in advance of Sunday’s planned touchdown.

Starliner was launched early Dec. 20 on what was supposed to be the last flight test before astronauts climbed on board. About a half-hour after launch, the mission went awry when a scheduled orbital insertion burn didn’t happen.

Ground controllers scrambled to get the autonomously controlled spacecraft into a stable orbit, but in the process, so much thruster fuel was used up that the boosting maneuvers for getting to the space station had to be canceled.

NASA and Boeing decided to pursue as many of the test objectives as they could without flying to the station, and made plans for Dec. 22’s early touchdown at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

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