Christopher Ferguson, a Boeing employee and former NASA astronaut will no longer command the first crewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, the latest passenger spacecraft, engaged to carry its first human passengers next year. NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore is expected to take Ferguson’s place on the flight, riding along with two other NASA astronauts already appointed for the mission.
Through a video posted to Twitter, Ferguson stated leaving the flight was a “difficult and personal decision” he had to make. “Next year is very important for my family,” he said in the video. “I have made several commitments which I simply cannot risk missing. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just not going into space next year.”
Ferguson has been involved in several years of development of Boeing’s Starliner, a privately engineered crew capsule specially designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA. Ferguson led the last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2011, prior to retiring from the agency the same year.
He then joined Boeing and became the director of crew and mission systems for the Starliner program. In 2018, Ferguson was appointed as commander of the ‘debut’ crewed flight test of Starliner, along with the two astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke who would be joining as crewmates. Since he is technically not a NASA astronaut anymore, Ferguson would have become the first private citizen to fly on a privately made spacecraft to orbit.
NASA and Boeing had outlined the plan for Starliner’s first crewed flight to happen as soon as this year. However, the flight has been significantly delayed because of problems with the program. In December 2019, Boeing rolled out the Starliner on its debut flight to the space station, without any crew on board, but the mission experienced numerous software glitches that forced the company to bring the capsule home early before it could get to the ISS.
Willmore will Start the Training
After a long investigation conducted by NASA, Boeing has been persistently trying to integrate a list of 80 recommendations in order to make sure that no more glitches happen on upcoming flights. The company is bracing up to perform a second uncrewed test flight of Starliner, which as of now, is planned for December.
Now, Boeing is aiming for the first crewed test flight that will be performed no earlier than June of next year, and Ferguson signaled to The Washington Post that he had a family wedding and other commitments in 2021. With Ferguson pulling back, Wilmore will now start training as soon as possible with Mann and Fincke. Wilmore was already appointed for the backup crew for the mission, so he had already been undergoing training for the flight in case he was required to be slotted in. “Having had the chance to train alongside and view this outstanding crew as backup has been instrumental in my preparation to assume this position,” Wilmore said in a statement. “Stepping down was a difficult decision for Chris, but with his leadership and assistance to this point, this crew is positioned for success.”
In the meantime, Ferguson is still going to be extensively involved with Starliner. He is presuming a new role as director of mission integration and operations, where he will help the astronauts by ensuring that their training is satisfactory, according to Boeing. The company highlights that Ferguson is going to be one of the last people the crew will see before they leave for the test flight and one of the first they’ll see when they touch the ground again.
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