As the agency tries to overcome delays in the building of CST-100 Starliner and negotiate a seat barter arrangement with Russia, NASA has transferred two space explorers from the Boeing commercial crew operations to a SpaceX mission.
NASA announced on October 6 that astronauts Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann would lead the Crew-5 mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in the fall of 2022. The identities of the other two pilots for the operation will be revealed later.
Mann was previously a member of the 3-person Crew Flight Test (CFT) expedition, which was the Starliner’s first crewed flight. Cassada participated in Starliner-1, the very first operational Starliner mission after the CFT mission. Because of ongoing delays in the subsequent uncrewed Starliner operation, Orbital Flight Test 2, neither Starliner-1 nor CFT have firm launch dates. The reassignments were originally revealed by Ars Technica on October 5, despite the fact that no formal notification was expected for weeks or months.
NASA officials claimed they relocated Cassada and Mann because they intended to give the pair rookie astronauts flying experience relatively soon during a previously planned briefing about the forthcoming SpaceX Crew-3 mission on October 6. “It seemed like the ideal time to us,” NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said. “We wanted to give Nicole and Josh as much experience as possible and send them into the space as soon as possible.”
Mike Fincke and Butch Wilmore were allocated to the CFT mission, while Suni Williams was assigned to Starliner-1. All three astronauts are seasoned veterans, and NASA has stated that additional astronauts would be added to such missions in the future.
Jeanette Epps, the other rookie space explorer who was pulled from a Soyuz flight to the International Space Station in the year 2018 for reasons NASA refused to reveal at the time, is also still aboard Starliner-1. “That flight assignment is being reconsidered,” Stich added. “Because Starliner-1 is a bit further away than CFT, we’re looking at that assignment to see whether it might alter over time.”
NASA is hopeful that a Russian cosmonaut will occupy one of the two available seats on Crew-5. NASA as well as other Western astronauts are still in talks with Roscosmos about a seat barter arrangement that would allow them to fly on the Soyuz spacecraft in return for the Russian cosmonauts flying on private crew vehicles. If a Soyuz, Crew Dragon, or Starliner spacecraft has a malfunction, such “mixed crews” would assure that both cosmonauts and astronauts would be aboard the station.
At the briefing, Kathy Lueders, who works as the associate administrator for the space operations at NASA Agency, said, “We’ve been working with the Russian allies on what we call a ‘crew exchange’ approach.” “We’ve shown that the Crew Dragon is indeed a capable vehicle for the future, and now it’s simply a matter of putting together the next level of the government-to-government agreements to support that.”