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NASA, Boeing Signal Regular Missions to Space Station to Be Delayed

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Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, a spacecraft to take astronauts to the international space station, is being assembled in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in July 2017.
Photo:

Alex Sanz/Associated Press

NASA and

Boeing Co.

have agreed to turn the initial test flight of the company’s commercial crewed capsule into an operational mission, one of several recent signs officials are hedging their bets on when U.S. spacecraft will start regularly ferrying astronauts to the international space station.

Thursday’s disclosure by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration suggests a previously planned two-person flight, slated for November 2018,  is now likely to occur in 2019 or 2020 and would likely carry one additional crew member along with extra supplies. Instead of staying for two weeks as originally envisioned, NASA said the expanded crew could stay at the station for as long as six months conducting experiments and carrying out maintenance tasks.

The agency’s agreement to use Russian rockets and capsules to carry astronauts to the international laboratory ends in late 2019. That is prompting NASA leaders to seek contingency plans to carry American astronauts into orbit—and keep them there for extended periods—in the event U.S. providers aren’t ready to assume routine transportation responsibilities by the deadline. Maintaining a continuous U.S. presence on the international space station is important to NASA.

Even after a successful crewed test flight, it could take NASA several months or longer to authorize routine missions, according to outside experts, agency advisory committees and senior NASA officials. The process could leave the U.S. scrambling for stopgap measures unless alternate options are put in place relatively soon.

On its website, NASA said it is updating its existing contract with the company and “may evolve flight test strategy” for Boeing’s Starliner capsule, in anticipation of validating the spacecraft’s safety and authorizing “regular post-certification crew rotation missions.”

Boeing was more direct. In a release, the company said “it was clear” that “we needed to provide NASA with additional flexibility to ensure the station remains fully staffed and fully operational” until U.S. capsules achieve a regular cadence of missions.

In February, NASA’s top official in charge of the crewed exploration programs telegraphed such moves were under active consideration but stopped short of announcing a decision.

On its web posting Thursday, the same official, William Gerstenmaier, said the contract modification “provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” but further technical reviews are anticipated. He also said NASA is “preparing for potential schedule adjustments normally experienced during  spacecraft development.”

NASA stopped flying the space shuttle fleet in 2011 and has relied on Moscow for crew access to orbit since then. A major challenge for shuttle replacements is that the agency must comply with longstanding requirements that all commercial crew systems meet strict statistical safety benchmarks.

Boeing already has six post-certification Starliner flights under contract, but dates and payments for those missions haven’t been set. In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a contract valued at as much as $4.2 billion, including an unmanned test flight followed by the first test flight with people on board.

Elon Musk’s

closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is developing its own commercial space taxi and plans at least one crewed test flight before seeking approval to begin routine trips. After NASA gives the green light, both providers envision flying a pair of missions to the space station annually.

Boeing and SpaceX will have to demonstrate their capsules are more than four times safer than the space shuttle fleet when it was retired. But senior NASA officials and independent safety watchdogs have repeatedly said it may be difficult to comply with the new standards, and the agency may have to issue certain waivers before regular flights commence. Those deliberations could lead to delays.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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