NASA Announces Astronaut Changes for Upcoming Commercial Crew Missions

NASA crew members of the SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station. Pictured from left are NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada.Credits: NASA

NASA has reassigned astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada to the agency’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

NASA crew members of the SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station. Pictured from left are NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada.

Mann and Cassada will serve as spacecraft commander and pilot, respectively, for the Crew-5 mission. Additional crew members will be announced later.

Crew-5 is expected to launch no earlier than fall 2022 on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The duo and their crewmates will join an expedition crew aboard station for a long duration stay to conduct science activities for the benefit of humanity and exploration.

“Nicole and Josh have done a tremendous job pioneering the training and path forward for astronauts to fly on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. 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,” said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The NASA team is fortunate to have two commercial crew partners and will continue to work with Boeing and SpaceX to prepare NASA astronauts and our international partners to fly to and from the International Space Station on U.S. spacecraft.”

Mann and Cassada previously were assigned to missions on NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test and NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, respectively. NASA decided it was important to make these reassignments to allow Boeing time to complete the development of Starliner while continuing plans for astronauts to gain spaceflight experience for the future needs of the agency’s missions.

NASA astronauts Butch WilmoreMike Fincke, and Suni Williams will continue to provide experience for Boeing as the agency prepares for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test. Additional Boeing flight assignments will be made in the future.

Mann is a California native and a colonel in the Marine Corps. She earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from the United States Naval Academy and a Master of Science in mechanical engineering with a specialty in fluid mechanics from Stanford University. She is an F/A-18 test pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in more than 25 aircraft. NASA selected Mann as an astronaut in 2013. This will be her first trip to space.

“It has been the opportunity of a lifetime to train on a brand-new spacecraft, the Boeing Starliner, and it has been fantastic to work with the Boeing team,” Mann said. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to train on another new spacecraft – the SpaceX Crew Dragon – and appreciate the teams at NASA who have made that possible. I am ready to fly and serve on the International Space Station.”

Cassada grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and is a physicist and U.S. Navy test pilot. He attended college in Michigan and then completed his Ph.D. research at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory before becoming a naval aviator. Cassada has accumulated more than 4,000 flight hours in over 45 different aircraft. NASA selected him as an astronaut in 2013. This will be his first spaceflight.

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“It has been great to spend the last few years training with the joint Boeing and NASA team, and I am really looking forward to now have a chance to also train with SpaceX on a new spacecraft. Cross training on both programs is a unique opportunity to learn, but also to provide valuable insight to future astronauts flying these spacecraft,” Cassada said. “And, of course, Nicole and I are incredibly excited to get to work aboard the International Space Station, executing current operations and also contributing to future exploration beyond low-earth orbit.”

Starliner setbacks

It’s likely that the NASA astronauts with flight experience currently assigned to the Crew Flight Test and Starliner-1 missions, Butch Wilmore, Michael Fincke, and Sunita Williams, will remain on those manifests for now. However, sources suggested to Ars that NASA feels it can no longer wait to get its rookie astronauts—Epps is from the class of 2009, and Mann and Cassada are from the class of 2013—some spaceflight experience.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019

At the time of her assignment in 2018, Mann’s flight was targeted to occur as early as 2019. Since then, however, the Starliner program has suffered a series of setbacks. An initial uncrewed test flight, OFT-1, finally got off the ground in December 2019. However, due to software errors, this vehicle was nearly lost, both shortly after launch and then shortly before reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Because of the vehicle’s problems in flight, NASA did not clear Starliner to attempt to dock at the International Space Station, a key objective for the test flight.

This failure set off a painful 20-month process for Boeing and the astronauts awaiting their flights. NASA declared the mission a “high visibility close call” and launched an investigation into Boeing’s safety culture, demanding a major revamping of Boeing’s flight software. Boeing agreed to pay for a second test flight at a cost of $410 million out of its own resources. The company’s software engineers then dug into Starliner’s more than 1 million lines of code to look for errors. Finally, they tested it much more thoroughly than before.

Starliner eventually reached the launch pad in early August for the OFT-2 mission. However, just hours before the vehicle was due to launch on August 3, more than half of the 24 valves that control the flow of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer through the service module of the spacecraft malfunctioned. The launch was initially postponed a day, and it was then delayed indefinitely after Boeing decided to roll Starliner back into its processing hangar for further troubleshooting.

Waiting on OFT-2

About two weeks ago NASA’s chief of human spaceflight operations, Kathy Lueders, said teams of engineers and technicians from Boeing and NASA are continuing to assess the issue with sticky valves. A new date for this OFT-2 mission has yet to be set, and Lueders indicated one may not be set any time soon. She suggested the mission probably will slip to 2022. “My gut is that it would probably be more likely to be next year, but we’re still working through that timeline,” she said.

Sources confirmed there is no date set for the next OFT-2 launch attempt, as the spacecraft’s valve issue has yet to be resolved. Realistically, this test flight may not happen before next spring. Because there is no certainty that this test flight will go flawlessly and because there will be an extensive data review following the flight, NASA has low confidence for when the first crew flight will take place.

As Mann will move from this Starliner Crew Flight Test to the SpaceX Crew-5 mission, set for no earlier than August, this suggests NASA believes the first Starliner crew mission will not take place before the second half of 2022. And there is no guarantee it will occur then.

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