Launch officials said the mission could lift off as early as February, according to NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich.
Starliner was supposed to have astronauts blast off by the end of 2022. But continued work on several major issues that were identified during an uncrewed Starliner test flight in May pushed the schedule back.
Starliner is already years behind schedule. It is intended to serve the same purpose as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which has been ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station since May 2020.
Problems officials identified during Starliner’s uncrewed test flight included run-ins with a few of the spacecraft’s thrusters not firing as expected and software glitches. However, none of these issues had a major impact on the test mission, and the vehicle was still able to complete its multi-day journey to the ISS and return safely to Earth. Officials, however, deemed these issues serious enough to require corrective action before allowing the crew to board the vehicle.
Notably, the first attempt to send the Starliner on an orbital test in late 2019 had to be aborted – returning the vehicle directly to earth rather than an ISS docking – after software glitches caused the vehicle to deviate from its trajectory. It took nearly two years of troubleshooting before the Starliner was ready to return to the launch pad. Then, a problem with sticking valves further delayed the capsule’s return to flight.
Despite its setbacks, NASA has backed Boeing, which is one of two companies – the other being SpaceX – that the space agency tapped to build an astronaut-worthy spacecraft after the shuttle program was pulled out. space in 2011. While even the space agency initially expected that Boeing, a NASA partner for decades, would beat SpaceX to the launch pad, Boeing is now at least two years behind its upstart rival.
But NASA wants at least two spacecraft capable of getting astronauts to the ISS and back in hopes that if either vehicle has a problem that keeps it on the ground, there would always have an emergency transportation option. But it should be noted that NASA can also rely on Russian-made Soyuz vehicles to get astronauts to and from the ISS. The two countries have ride-sharing agreements that allow Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronauts to share seats on American or Russian vehicles, and this partnership has continued despite rising geopolitical tensions.
NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams have been slated to be the first astronauts to fly aboard Starliner next year.