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Starliner testing
Technicians at the Boeing Space Environment Test Facility in El Segundo, Calif., position a Starliner spaceship inside an acoustic test chamber. (Boeing Photo)

NASA today confirmed that the first uncrewed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi to the International Space Station would be delayed until at least August, and also said the first crewed flight would be extended into a long-duration mission.

In a news release, NASA said August was a “working date” that would have to be confirmed later, based on further testing of the spacecraft.

NASA said the decision to shift the date was guided by limited launch opportunities during the previously planned April-May time frame, as well as planning requirements for the launch of the AEHF-5 military communications satellite for the Air Force in June.

Boeing’s first crewed test flight of the Starliner to the space station was reset for no earlier than late 2019.

Both the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test and the Crew Flight Test are to be launched atop United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. Between those two flights, Boeing is slated to conduct a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to demonstrate the Starliner’s capability to carry the crew to safety in the event of a launch pad emergency.

“We remain diligent, with a safety-first culture,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “While we have already made substantial progress this year, this shift gives us the time to continue building a safe, quality spacecraft capable of carrying crews over and over again after a successful uncrewed test, without adding unnecessary schedule pressure.”

SpaceX sent its Crew Dragon spaceship on its initial uncrewed flight to the space station last month, and is due to conduct an in-flight abort test in June. If current schedules hold, SpaceX’s first crewed flight would send two NASA astronauts to the station and back in July, months before Boeing can do so.

NASA said it would work with SpaceX to re-evaluate those target test dates over the next couple of weeks.

SpaceX’s first crewed flight is currently expected to involve a short-term stay, but Boeing’s first crewed flight will now be turned into a long-term mission to the station, with its duration yet to be determined.

NASA said the long-duration flight was “in the best interest of the agency’s needs to ensure continued access and better utilization” of the space station.

“NASA’s assessment of extending the mission was found to be technically achievable without compromising the safety of the crew,” said Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters. “Commercial crew flight tests, along with the additional Soyuz opportunities, help us transition with greater flexibility to our next-generation commercial systems under the Commercial Crew Program.”

An extended Starliner mission would reduce NASA’s need to purchase additional seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which have provided the only means to transport astronauts to and from orbit since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011. The going rate for a Soyuz seat has risen beyond $80 million.

Once the SpaceX and Boeing space taxis enter regular service, NASA and Russia’s space agency will be able to barter seat reservations with no money changing hands.

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