It’s not very often that you hear about an astronaut pulling out of the chance to go to space, but that’s precisely what NASA’s Christopher Ferguson did on Wednesday.
The experienced astronaut announced in a video posted on Twitter that he’s decided not to take his place alongside two colleagues for Boeing’s first crewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft next year, citing family commitments.
Ferguson, a three-time Space Shuttle veteran, described the decision as a “difficult” one. Elaborating, he said that 2021 is a “very important” year for his family as he’s made “several important commitments that I simply cannot risk missing.”
I’m taking on a new mission, one that keeps my feet planted here firmly on Earth and prioritizes my most important crew – my family. I’ll still be working hard with the #Starliner team and the @NASA_Astronauts on our crew. pic.twitter.com/PgdhPqwYQS
— Christopher Ferguson (@Astro_Ferg) October 7, 2020
In additional comments published by Boeing, the astronaut said: “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. 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.”
Of course, Ferguson’s departure from the flight crew line-up frees up space for someone else to hop aboard.
The lucky person is another veteran astronaut — Barry “Butch” Wilmore — who has been selected by NASA to fly on the Starliner for the upcoming crewed flight test, along with astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke.
“Stepping down was a difficult decision for Chris, but with his leadership and assistance to this point, this crew is positioned for success,” Wilmore said in response to the crew change, adding, “We will move forward in the same professional and dedicated manner that Chris has forged.”
Ferguson isn’t disappearing from the team altogether, though, as he’ll be using his wealth of knowledge to serve as the director of Mission Integration and Operations. This will allow him to work on making sure the Starliner and its training systems meet the needs of NASA’s astronauts while also supporting them throughout their training as well as the mission itself.
The Starliner can be described as Boeing’s version of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and, just as that spacecraft is already doing, will one day transport astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.
Had the Starliner’s crewed test flight taken place this year, no doubt Ferguson would’ve been on board. But the program has suffered delays after the spacecraft’s first orbital test flight failed to make it into the correct orbit to reach the ISS in December 2019.
An investigation by NASA revealed a slew of software problems with the Starliner’s systems, with the space agency announcing numerous “corrective actions” that Boeing has been implementing to allow it to try for a second uncrewed test flight, likely in December 2020.
If that goes well, the first crewed orbital test flight will take place in June 2021 at the earliest.
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