In 2011, NASA announced a bold new program to leverage partnerships between the government and the commercial space sector to restore domestic launch capability. As part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to develop next-generation crew-rated capsules that would transport astronauts and payloads to International Space Station (ISS) and other locations in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
While SpaceX has managed to meet all the requirements of the CCP with their Crew Dragon module, Boeing’s Starliner has experienced technical problems and several delays. With the latest delay (caused by the ISS being temporarily pushed out of its orbit), NASA has decided to reassign the astronauts that were scheduled to take the Starliner on its maiden crewed flight (Starliner-1) to the next crewed flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the ISS (Crew-5).
Henceforth, NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada will serve as spacecraft commander and pilot for the Crew-5 mission (respectively), with additional crew members to be announced later. This mission is currently scheduled to launch no sooner than the fall of 2022 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Meet the Astronauts
Born in California, Nicole Mann is a Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and a test pilot with over 2,500 hours of flight experience in over 25 aircraft. She holds a Bachelor of Science (mechanical engineering) from the U.S. Naval Academy and a Master of Science (mech. eng. with a specialty in fluid mechanics) from Standford University. As part of NASA’s 2013 astronaut selection, the Crew-5 mission will be her first trip to space. Said Mann:
“It has been the opportunity of a lifetime to train on a brand-new spacecraft, the Boeing Starliner, and it has been fantastic to work with the Boeing team. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to train on another new spacecraft – the SpaceX Crew Dragon – and appreciate the teams at NASA who have made that possible. I am ready to fly and serve on the International Space Station.”
Similarly, Josh Cassada is a U.S. Navy test pilot who grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Before becoming a naval aviator, he earned his Ph.D. in physics at the Fermi National Accelerator and has more than 4,000 hours of flight experience in more than 45 different aircraft. Like Mann, he was selected as part of NASA’s 2013 astronaut selection, and this will be his first spaceflight. As he said:
“It has been great to spend the last few years training with the joint Boeing and NASA team, and I am really looking forward to now have a chance to also train with SpaceX on a new spacecraft. Cross training on both programs is a unique opportunity to learn, but also to provide valuable insight to future astronauts flying these spacecraft. And, of course, Nicole and I are incredibly excited to get to work aboard the International Space Station, executing current operations and also contributing to future exploration beyond low-earth orbit.”
As part of the CCP, the Starliner conducted its maiden uncrewed launch – designated Orbital Test Flight-1 (OTF-1) – on Dec. 20th, 2019. While the launch was successful, two software malfunctions caused the engines to fire too late and burn through more fuel than anticipated. The planned rendezvous with the ISS was scrubbed as a result, and the flight controllers concluded the mission with a splashdown in the Atlantic.
Renewed attempts to rendezvous with the ISS (OTF-2) began in late July, but this was delayed after the ISS’ new Nauka module fired its thrusters and temporarily pushed the station out of orbit. Another attempt was made on Aug. 4th, but the flight was delayed again when ground teams identified an issue with one of the valves on the spacecraft’s propulsion system.
A successful rendezvous with the ISS would have placed Boeing one step closer to fulfilling its obligations under the CCP and the point where they could execute contracts to send payloads and crew to the ISS. It would also mean that NASA had two launch providers to restore domestic launch capability to U.S. soil, which was lost with the Space Shuttle‘s retirement in 2011.
While Mann and Cassada are being transferred, NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, Mike Fincke, and Suni Williams will continue to be part of the Boeing Starliner team and help prepare the spacecraft for flight testing. Additional astronaut flight assignments (and flight dates) will be announced once it is determined that Boeing has fixed all of the mechanical and software issues that have kept the Starliner grounded so far.
When they arrive at the ISS, Mann, Cassada, and their crewmates will join the Expedition 67 astronauts, scheduled to depart for the ISS as part of the Crew-4 mission in April of 2022. They will conduct a series of science activities designed to advance human space exploration during their long-duration stay. Said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEO) at NASA Headquarters, in a recent NASA press statement:
“Nicole and Josh have done a tremendous job pioneering the training and path forward for astronauts to fly on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. They have gained experience that they will take forward as they train to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and serve aboard the International Space Station. The NASA team is fortunate to have two commercial crew partners and will continue to work with Boeing and SpaceX to prepare NASA astronauts and our international partners to fly to and from the International Space Station on U.S. spacecraft.”
The CCP is in keeping with NASA’s long tradition of working closely with the space industry and private contractors to advance spaceflight and fulfill their space exploration goals. It is also in keeping with NASA’s long history of participation in the ISS program, which has seen international teams of astronauts living and working continuously aboard the space station for more than 20 years.
After all this time, the ISS remains the only research lab in the world where microgravity research can be conducted. More than 3,000 investigations and experiments have been carried out aboard the ISS, which were contributed by researchers from 108 countries. A total of 246 astronauts from 19 countries have visited the space station to participate in these experiments that would otherwise be impossible to do on Earth.
This research is not only helping to prepare for long-duration missions to the Moon, Mars, and other locations in deep space. They are also providing tangible benefits here on Earth and are paving the way for the “commercialization of Low Earth Orbit” (LEO). As such, NASA, Boeing, and other interested parties are working hard to make sure that the Starliner spacecraft is in working order soon. The more providers that can contribute to this overall vision and architecture, the sooner it’s likely to become a reality!
Further Reading: NASA