NASA reschedules Boeing's first crewed Starliner flight for mid-April 2024

Given they're still trying to fix the capsule's parachute the astronauts better say their prayers

NASA announced on Thursday that the first-ever crewed test flight of Boeing's much-delayed Starliner spacecraft will launch no earlier than mid-April, 2024.

The mission – dubbed Crew Flight Test (CFT) – will see test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni William travel to the International Space Station (ISS) and back to try out Boeing's reusable capsule. The Starliner will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida and transport the astronauts on an eight-day trip.

In 2014 NASA's Commercial Crew Program contracted Boeing and SpaceX to build spacecraft for transport to and from the ISS. Both firms struggled with multiple setbacks that delayed their first crewed test flights for years.

SpaceX is up and running, having first launched astronauts into space in 2020, and is due to fly its eighth mission in February next year.

Starliner, however, is yet to fly – but is eating a billion-dollar hole in Boeing's accounts.

In August, Boeing admitted its Starliner probe wouldn't be ready until March 2024. A spokesperson from the aeronautics giant said the latest update for the CFT target launch in mid-April was decided by NASA.

"We previously stated that we plan to have the spacecraft ready for flight by March 2024, but NASA determines when we will actually launch. Due to traffic at ISS and range availability, NASA has determined that our opportunity for launch will be no earlier than April. This does not indicate a delay in the program as we remain on schedule to have the vehicle ready in March," the spokesperson told The Register.

In an August teleconference, NASA and Boeing flagged removal of flammable tape used on the spacecraft and redesign of its parachute system as two top areas of concern. Only half of the tape was gone by August, and engineers will have to cover up the remainder with another material in areas where it is too difficult to remove.

Meanwhile, the mechanism that connects the parachute to the capsule – needed to slow the Starliner's speed so it can safely land on Earth – has had to be redesigned after it broke apart in tests. The issue has plagued Boeing for a while, and was one of the main reasons it had to push back its first-ever crewed flight back in June.

In another parachute test back in 2019, only two out of three canopies deployed successfully. At the time, Boeing insisted that its Starliner was still "acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety" despite the anomaly. Tell that to the crew.

Other issues engineers have had to fix include dodgy thrusters and lowering the risk of batteries overheating.

"NASA will provide an updated status of CFT readiness as more information becomes available," the space agency confirmed in a statement. ®

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