Boeing's first manned flight to the International Space Station can last much longer than originally planned, and the mission can also count on an additional crew member for the trip. It is assumed that the company's Starliner vehicle will take NASA astronauts to the ISS for the first time later this year on a two-week trip, but the space agency is considering extending the trip to six months. Instead of sending only one crew of two to the spacecraft, a third astronaut could also be added.
This would completely restructure the first manned trip for Starliner, which was only meant to be a test flight. As part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, both Boeing and SpaceX have developed private vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. But before companies can begin to do full missions to the station, NASA wants each spacecraft to make two test flights to the ISS first: one without people on board and then one with the crew. The two-person test flights are meant simply to show that vehicles can keep passengers safe on the way to and from orbit. The full operational missions will last for months and will have up to four crew members on board.
Now, the Boeing test flight looks more like a full manned mission
Now, the Boeing test flight is more like a full crew mission, the kind you'll do regularly once your Starliner is qualified to fly. That may be because NASA is running out of ways to take its astronauts to the ISS. NASA astronauts are currently flying to the station on Russian Soyuz rockets, and the space agency has reserved seats on the vehicle's flights for the next two years. The last Soyuz that will transport NASA astronauts will take off in the fall of 2019. After that, NASA will have to rely on its Commercial Crew partners to take astronauts to and from the ISS.
There is a concern that SpaceX and Boeing are not ready to support full-month missions for a while. Originally, it was assumed that the two companies had their vehicles certified for crew this year. But the commercial crew program has suffered numerous setbacks, and now, both companies are scheduled to carry out their first manned flight tests later this year. Once the tests are completed, it could take up to six months before the companies are ready to begin full missions.
The chances are high, the next test flights will also be delayed. A recent audit of the Government Accountability Office predicts that neither SpaceX nor Boeing will be ready to complete missions until late 2019 or early 2020. By converting the Boeing flight test into a complete mission, NASA hopes to preempt any possible breach. in access to the ISS, and an additional astronaut will keep the total crew of NASA aboard the station more or less the same.
"It was clear to us that we needed to provide NASA with additional flexibility."
However, a longer test flight could have more benefits than just continuous access to the station. NASA says it could lead to more microgravity research and more maintenance of the ISS. However, the change is not yet a fact, as NASA needs to find out if it can accommodate a longer test flight. "Turning a test flight into a more operational mission needs a careful review by the technical community," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of exploration and human operations, in a statement. "For example, the spacecraft's ability to withstand additional time still needs to be reviewed."
However, Boeing says he is ready to make the change. "It was clear to us that we needed to provide NASA with additional flexibility to ensure that the station remains fully staffed and fully operational until Commercial Crew Program providers can have a more regular cadence of long-term crew rotation missions. "said Boeing. in a statement to Florida Today.