NASA announces Starliner crew change for 2021 Boeing Crew Flight Test

Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Chris Ferguson (Photo from NASA)

An astronaut scheduled to go on the inaugural crewed launch for Boeing's Starliner vehicle has pulled out, the space agency announced.

NASA said on Wednesday that veteran NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore will join Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann for NASA's Boeing Crew Flight Test.

They said that this will be the crew for the first flight of the CST-100 Starliner. The launch is scheduled for 2021 and they will travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson is being replaced, as he decided not to fly for personal reasons.

Wilmore has reportedly worked side-by-side with the crew since being named the sole backup for all flight positions in July 2018. He will now focus on the spacecraft commander’s duties in preparation for the flight. 

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“Butch will be able to step in seamlessly, and his previous experience on both space shuttle and space station missions make him a valuable addition to this flight,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “Chris has been a talented member of the crew for this mission. The NASA and Boeing Commercial Crew teams sincerely appreciate the invaluable work he has completed and he will continue to lead in the development of Starliner, which will help ensure that the Starliner Crew Flight Test will be a success.”

Wilmore is said to have spent 178 days in space over the course of two missions. NASA said that in 2009, he was the pilot of space shuttle Atlantis on STS-129. He helped deliver 14 tons of spare parts for the ISS. Then, in 2014, he went back to space on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a 167-day mission. He completed four spacewalks during the voyage.

“I’m grateful to Chris for his exceptional leadership and insight into this very complex and most capable vehicle,” Wilmore said. “Having had the chance to train alongside and view this outstanding crew as backup has been instrumental in my preparation to assume this position. Stepping down was a difficult decision for Chris, but with his leadership and assistance to this point, this crew is positioned for success. We will move forward in the same professional and dedicated manner that Chris has forged.”

The inaugural flight will test the capabilities of the new Starliner system, NASA added. The space agency believes that a safe, reliable, and cost-effective solution for crew transportation services to and from the ISS is a priority for NASA and Boeing. The NASA Commercial Crew Program is working to develop and operate spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the space station.

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Meanwhile, Ferguson will reportedly become the director of Mission Integration and Operations and the director of Crew Systems for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. He will focus on making sure the Starliner spacecraft meets the needs of NASA astronauts. 

“I have full confidence in the Starliner vehicle, the men and women building and testing it, and the NASA astronauts who will ultimately fly it,” Ferguson said. “The Boeing team has taken all lessons from our first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to heart, and is making Starliner one of the safest new crewed spacecraft ever fielded. I will be here on the ground supporting Butch, Nicole, and Mike while they prove it.”

“My personal thank you to Chris for his leadership. He is putting his family first, which Boeing fully supports,” said Leanne Caret, president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “We are fortunate he will continue to take an active role on the Starliner program and bring his depth and breadth of experience in human spaceflight to the program.”

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