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Due to the Boeing new Starliner spacecraft launch delays, NASA sends its two astronauts to the upcoming SpaceX flight. According to The Verge, astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada were supposed to be pioneers on Starliner during its first crewed flights in the coming years. Now their task is to join the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s vehicle. It will happen in the autumn of 2022.

Mann and Cassada were initially assigned to fly on Starliner in 2018. Moreover, Mann was supposed to become a member of the Starliner’s first crewed test flight, together with Michael Fincke and Butch Wilmore. The aim was to demonstrate that Starliner is safe to carry people. At the same time, Cassada was assigned to fly the next mission after Mann’s, Starliner’s first official crewed mission, which also included NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Jeanette Epps.

Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada.
Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada. Image credit: theverge.com

There is no clear date when these Starliner flights are going to happen, as Boeing struggles to solve a valve problem with the spacecraft. The deadline is unclear so NASA swapped crew assignments, as the result Mann and Cassada could see the Earth from space even sooner. “Nicole and Josh have done a tremendous job pioneering the training and path forward for astronauts to fly on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of the space operations at NASA, said in a statement. “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 reassignment was first reported by Ars Technica on Tuesday.

Boeing built Starliner to deliver passengers to and from the International Space Station as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It is one of the two made vehicles for the program; the other is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which delivered its first crew of astronauts in May 2020. The development process has two steps: each company launches its vehicle without people on board and when the test is successful, companies launch a test flight with crew.

So far, Starliner has only flown once without passengers on board, and its debut flight did not go to plan. During its launch, the spacecraft suffered multiple software glitches, which ultimately prevented the vehicle from reaching the orbit it needed to achieve to meet up with the International Space Station. Boeing was able to bring the spacecraft back to Earth safely, but NASA launched an investigation into the flight, coming up with a total of 80 corrective actions the agency wanted Boeing to take before proceeding. NASA and Boeing agreed that the company would get a do-over mission, in which Starliner would launch again without people on board.

However, it’s still an open question when that redo will take place. Boeing hoped to fly a passenger-less Starliner again this summer and even got as close as stacking the spacecraft on top of an Atlas V rocket on the launchpad. But the launch had to be postponed just hours before liftoff after Boeing discovered issues with some of Starliner’s propulsion valves. Eventually, the company took Starliner off its rocket and transported it back to the factory to take a deeper look. There hasn’t been a solid update on when the issue will be fixed.

“We understand the agency’s need to make adjustments to get members of the current astronaut class flying experience on an operational vehicle while the development of the Starliner spacecraft continues,” Boeing said of the astronaut reassignment in a statement to The Verge. “We fully support NASA’s decisions and remain committed to putting the safety of the astronauts who will fly on our vehicle first.”

SpaceX’s first flight with Crew Dragon was prosperous and the vehicle has delivered two full passenger missions to the space station, launching a total of 10 astronauts to the ISS. The company’s next mission, called Crew-3, is slated for takeoff on October 30th. SpaceX is also slated to bring home its second group of passengers, Crew-2, from the space station in mid-November.

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