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Boeing astronaut withdraws himself from first crewed test flight of passenger spacecraft

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Chris Ferguson is not going to fly on Starliner next year

Chris Ferguson, after NASA announced his assignment to the Starliner mission
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Boeing employee and former NASA astronaut Christopher Ferguson will no longer command the first crewed test flight of Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, slated to carry its first human passengers next year. NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore will take Ferguson’s place on the flight, riding along with the two other NASA astronauts already assigned to the mission.

In a video posted to Twitter, Ferguson said 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 instrumental in the multiyear development of Boeing’s Starliner, a privately built crew capsule designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA. Ferguson commanded the last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2011, before retiring from the agency that year. He then joined Boeing and became director of crew and mission systems for the Starliner program. In 2018, Ferguson was assigned as commander of the first crewed flight test of Starliner, along with astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke who would be joining as crewmates. Since he is technically no longer a NASA astronaut, Ferguson would have become the first private citizen to fly on a privately made spacecraft to orbit.

NASA and Boeing had planned for Starliner’s first crewed flight to happen as soon as this year, but the flight has been significantly delayed due to problems with the program. In December 2019, Boeing launched the Starliner on its debut flight to the space station — with no crew on board — but the mission suffered from numerous software glitches that prompted the company to bring the capsule home early before it could reach the ISS. After a lengthy investigation by NASA, Boeing has been trying to implement a list of 80 recommendations to ensure that no more glitches occur on upcoming flights. And the company is gearing up to perform a second uncrewed test flight of Starliner, currently planned for December.

Now, Boeing is targeting no earlier than June of next year for the first crewed test flight, and Ferguson indicated to The Washington Post that he had a family wedding and other commitments in 2021. With Ferguson stepping down, Wilmore will now start training immediately with Mann and Fincke. Wilmore was already part of the backup crew for the mission, so he had already been training for the flight in case he needed 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 will still be very involved with Starliner. He is assuming a new role as director of mission integration and operations, where he will support the astronauts and make sure that their training is adequate, according to Boeing. The company notes that Ferguson will also be one of the last people the crew will see before they leave for space — and one of the first they’ll see when they return.