NASA expands first manned Starliner mission


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NASA has modified its contract with Boeing to allow its first manned Starliner test mission to add an astronaut and extend the mission’s length so that it more resembles an operational flight to ISS.

NASA is considering adding a third crew member to the Starliner’s “Crew Flight Test” and could extend its trip to the International Space Station from two weeks up to six months, the length of a typical ISS expedition. The potential changes, outlined in a contract modification with Boeing, could help NASA maintain its presence on the International Space Station through 2019 and beyond.

NASA’s last purchased ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, upon which the U.S. has relied for access to the ISS since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2019.
Boeing’s new Starliner spacesuit features lightweight fabric, slim gloves and sneaker-like boots. But Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may not be certified to fly four-person crews until after that. “This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of human spaceflight operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We appreciate Boeing’s willingness to evolve its flight to ensure we have continued access to space for our astronauts.”

Doing this makes some sense, but I wonder why NASA chose to do it with Boeing’s Starliner instead of SpaceX’s Dragon. Starliner has never flown in any form, while the manned Dragon is based on SpaceX’s well tested design.

I suspect NASA will soon modify its SpaceX contract as well. It makes sense. Once you put humans on board, you might as well give yourself the option to do a full mission.

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14 comments

  • Kirk

    My take on it was that since the change was being done to “help NASA maintain its presence on the International Space Station through 2019 and beyond”, it was in response to further expected delays, and that this contract modification would not have been necessary if they were still on track for a 2018 crewed flight. Is that reading too much into the story?

  • Kirk

    Recall that Eric Berger (who is presumably following the program closer than any of us here) tweeted that there is little confidence in a crewed test flight by either Starliner or Dragon 2 this year, and that he figures there is only a 50-50 chance of there being a single uncrewed test flight in 2018.

  • Kirk: Your take is correct, but you leave out one detail. Most of the delays in the commercial crew program (especially for Dragon) have been caused by NASA and its sometimes draconian requirements.

  • Des

    According to https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-boeing-may-evolve-flight-test-strategy Boeing approached NASA to suggest the change. It is very likely that a similar modification will be made to the Spacex contact. The current schedule shows the Boeing test flight will be before Spacex, but there is a good chance that Spacex will get ahead of Boeing again.

  • mkent

    The publicity around this contract mod has confirmed the first of a couple of things that have been out there a while but overlooked in the all-SpaceX-all-the-time nature of space fanboyism these days.

    1) Boeing still intends to fly one of their employees to orbit on the test flight. He will be the first private citizen launched to orbit aboard a private spacecraft. SpaceX has said they are only flying two NASA astronauts on their test flight.

    2) It suggests Boeing is keeping the fifth seat in its NASA configuration. NASA will purchase four, but the fifth seat will be available for purchase to qualified parties. Boeing has agreements with both Bigelow and Space Adventures for crew transportation. SpaceX has publicly stated they are only flying four NASA astronauts on their operational missions.

    “The current schedule shows the Boeing test flight will be before Spacex, but there is a good chance that Spacex will get ahead of Boeing again.”

    And you base this on what? Its certainly possible, of course. More delays are definitely possible, even likely. But Boeing has been moving faster than SpaceX throughout this contract. They started four years behind SpaceX and have now caught up to them and are possibly ahead of them.

  • Mike Borgelt

    ” But Boeing has been moving faster than SpaceX throughout this contract. They started four years behind SpaceX and have now caught up to them and are possibly ahead of them.”
    As engineered by NASA.

  • Kirk

    Crew assignments for the test flights have not yet been announced, but Behnken, Boe, Hurley, and Williams form the NASA test flight cadre. With a Boeing astronaut on their crewed test flight, I figured that one of those four was going to get the short stick.

    If they now merge the test flight with a six month crew rotation mission, I don’t see how that wouldn’t cut both the Boeing astronaut and a second member of the test flight cadre.

    They are currently flying four Soyuz missions annually, with the plan to switch to two Soyuz, one Starliner, and one Dragon 2, with seats traded between the Russians and NASA so that a mixed crew flies on each vehicle. I don’t see how such an arrangement could allow for a Space Adventures seat on a Boeing flight to the ISS, unless the participant were to stay for six months.

  • Edward

    The current schedule shows the Boeing test flight will be before Spacex, but there is a good chance that Spacex will get ahead of Boeing again.

    But Boeing has been moving faster than SpaceX throughout this contract. They started four years behind SpaceX and have now caught up to them and are possibly ahead of them.

    You all are making this sound more like a race than a business competition. Modifying both contracts is business, being first is race, being better or more efficient is business. Being first does not matter if the competition beats you anyway. Remember the Altair personal computer? It was first. Remember Iridium and Globalstar? Both raced each other to orbit, then raced each other to bankruptcy court, because the competition, cell phones, became so inexpensive, and it has taken two decades for the concept of constellations of communication satellites to come back into favor.

    I’m not making any bets on this “race,” not only because I do not care who flies first but because the field belongs to NASA, who we would think wants flights sooner rather than later yet has instead handicapped both participants. NASA can determine the winner in this “race.”

    My interest is in who is flying people in ten years and to where. Will SpaceX and Boeing still be the ones to beat or will Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser or Reaction Engines’s Skylon be the major service provider? How many private space habitats will there be in ten years, and will ISS still be operational? Will other countries be buying their own space habitats from the various manufacturers, and will the higher orbits or the Moon be a destination by then?

    In the bigger picture, it does not matter who flies first, but it does matter how soon they can start flying. If either one had been flying in 2015, as originally planned, Bigelow probably would have a manned space habitat by now. Instead, Bigelow thinks that is still three years away. The slow pace of government is affecting commercial space’s ability to move us forward.

  • wodun

    NASA can determine the winner in this “race.”

    Yup, that is exactly why it isn’t a race. The media will cover it that way for various reasons though.

    SpaceX could probably send people to the ISS within a week.

    Also, a test that mimics an actual operational flight is really an operational flight for all intents and purposes. The only way it is a “test” is that it wont carry the full crew. While NASA has been throwing up lots of arbitrary road blocks, they also seem to selectively knock a few down from time to time.

  • wodun

    I don’t see how such an arrangement could allow for a Space Adventures seat on a Boeing flight to the ISS, unless the participant were to stay for six months.

    Will every seat on every launch/departure be taken? It could arranged for a little overlap in arriving and departing capsules to allow for a tourist, especially if there are other passengers that have different length stays on the ISS.

    Its all a little squishy.

    All the talk has been about ridding NASA of the ISS but is there any talk of expanding it to allow for more astronauts and not just tourists? A while back, Rand Simberg was noting how much more productive the ISS would be just be a small expansion in crew so that more people could focus on work rather than maintenance.

  • mkent

    ” I don’t see how such an arrangement could allow for a Space Adventures seat on a Boeing flight to the ISS, unless the participant were to stay for six months.”

    That depends on whether NASA performs direct or indirect crew handovers. During direct crew handovers, the replacement crew is launched a week or two before the old crew departs. A space tourist could launch with the new crew and depart with the old crew, staying on ISS only for the two-week overlap.

    However, during indirect crew handovers, the old crew leaves ISS a week or two before its replacement crew arrives. In such a case, the “space tourist” would indeed have to stay on the station for six months. But even that may not be an issue, since the “space tourist” may not be an actual tourist.

    The “space tourist” may be a payload specialist, purchasing a seat on board to run his experiment directly while aboard the ISS. Or it could be a Nanoracks employee paid to attend to more experiments than the NASA astronauts can afford to spend on Nanoracks-hosted experiments. Or it could even be a Boeing employee paid by NASA to maintain the station (since Boeing designed most of the USOS portion of it) so that the NASA astronauts can devote their time to research.

    In the commercial world there will be many more possibilities for manned spaceflight than just tourists snapping pictures of Earth from orbit.

    Boeing in the past has explored numerous commercial manned spaceflight opportunities. In fact, they’ve done more commercial manned spaceflight than anyone. (Hint: they’ve already flown their employees to space, so the new Boeing astronaut won’t even be their first.) There’s a lot more going on up there than just SpaceX. (I’m not trying to throw shade at SpaceX — I like what they’re doing) — just some of the more cultish members of the fan club.)

    I, for one, welcome this expansion of commercial spaceflight.

  • Richard Malcolm

    “But Boeing has been moving faster than SpaceX throughout this contract.”

    Faster in completing their paperwork. Boeing is quite proficient in that. But not necessarily in bending metal.

    It is instructive that the last GAO report confined its concerns about SpaceX to the Falcon 9 Block 5. There were no concerns about the Dragon listed, but they had significant concerns about Starliner.

  • Richard Malcolm

    Edward,

    “…but because the field belongs to NASA, who we would think wants flights sooner rather than later yet has instead handicapped both participants.”

    True – they do. But NASA is a big organization, and there is more than one motivation at work.

    There has been a significant creep in requirements, mostly related to safety, in this final phase of CCtCAP, which is under a different contract basis than the earlier phases of Commercial Crew development. And to some degree, that works in real tension with the desire to get these vehicles flying as soon as possible. The questions some have been asking is: How safe does it need to be? How much incremental improvement in actual safety will some of these changes actually produce?

  • pzatchok

    Why doesn’t SpaceX just start using the Crew Dragon as the cargo Dragon?

    Leave everything but the seats in it and fly it for cargo missions as a test.

    As an aside.
    Does anyone know if the Chinese use the same docking collar and system as the rest of the space world or not?
    And if not it might help SpaceX if they had one ready to attach to a Dragon in case of a Chinese emergency. China night just go for it, it could hurt to ask.
    Think of it as cheap insurance for China. And good PR for SpaceX.

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