Boeing's Starliner launch pushed back again... to April 2023

The official word is 'scheduling conflicts,' but NASA's safety panel has expressed concerns too

The first crewed launch of Boeing's Starliner has been delayed again, this time being pushed back to April 2023 from an earlier planned launch date of February.

The change came with little announcement from NASA, which tweeted out the new date as a scheduling update without any additional details. In an accompanying blog post, NASA said the change was being made to eliminate conflicts between "visiting spacecraft traffic at the space station," but the agency didn't elaborate much beyond that.

Starliner has been a drag on Boeing since the company unveiled the capsule in 2010. According to Boeing's Q3 2022 filing, Starliner has lost the company $883 million since 2019.

That was the year Starliner made its first attempt at an uncrewed launch and docking with the International Space Station, which failed due to a pair of software errors that left it unable to dock and saw it returned to Earth early under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Attempts at a second launch in 2021 also failed when 13 of the Calamity Capsule's propulsion system valves failed pre-flight checks. Starliner only made it to the ISS for the first time this past May, but even that launch wasn't without issues as two of the craft's 12 thrusters failed once in orbit.

NASA still has Starliner concerns

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) met on October 27 to discuss, among other things [PDF], updates on the Commercial Crew Program. ASAP panel member Mark Sirangelo said that issues remaining after the uncrewed launch in May could continue to have an effect – like delaying Starliner's crewed launch, a decision made by NASA after the October 27 meeting, though it isn't clear if ASAP's discussion influenced its choice.

According to Sirangelo, the uncrewed launch in May "produced a number of in-flight anomalies that will need to be worked prior to the next flight test."

Sirangelo also said that the new Starliner software would need to undergo additional avionics software integration lab testing prior to the launch. 

If and when Starliner carries crew to the ISS, it'll be flown by Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Sunita "Suni" Williams, who will stay on the ISS for around two weeks. Once the test flight is complete, Boeing will have a few other certification steps to take before it can elbow its way into the commercial launch rotation among SpaceX's regular runs to the orbital lab. 

NASA said that SpaceX's Dragon Endeavour will mark its fourth flight to the ISS when it launches in February on its Crew-6 mission, the month Starliner was originally scheduled for its first crewed flight. That launch will make Dragon Endeavour "the spacecraft fleet leader in number of flights to and from the station," NASA said. 

Crew-7, meanwhile, is being planned for some time in the fall of 2023. Whether Starliner will get a chance to deliver humans to the ISS between those flights remains to be seen, but those willing to place a bet might want to wait until April to see if the Calamity Capsule can finally shed that pejorative. ®

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