Boeing's top Starliner astronaut pulls out of space mission role

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chief astronaut for Boeing Co’s long-delayed debut crewed flight to the International Space Station stepped down from the job on Wednesday, citing family priorities.

FILE PHOTO: Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson poses for a portrait at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., July 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Chris Ferguson, a 59-year-old retired NASA astronaut who joined Boeing in 2011 and became a Starliner test pilot in 2018, will remain on the Starliner team in a mission operations role, he said. The launch remains scheduled for next summer.

“I have made obligations that I just do not want to break to my family,” Ferguson said in an interview with Reuters.

The personnel shakeup comes as the U.S. aerospace giant is trying to overcome software and hardware problems that have put the Starliner missions more than a year behind rival spacecraft from Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

NASA in 2014 contracted Boeing and SpaceX to build their own capsules that can fly American astronauts to the space station, an effort to wean the U.S. off its nearly decade-long dependence on Russia’s Soyuz vehicles for rides to space.

Software and hardware failures prevented Starliner from docking to the space station during its first unpiloted test flight in 2019.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which sent its first pair of NASA astronauts to the space station earlier this year, is scheduled to carry three more and a Japanese astronaut later this month.

Boeing is aiming to re-do its unpiloted Starliner test mission in December as engineering teams complete the last of more than 80 recommendations and fixes that turned up from independent and internal reviews of the 2019 Starliner test failure.

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore will fill in for Ferguson, the space agency announced on Wednesday.

“I’m not going anywhere, I’m just not going to space next year,” Ferguson said.

Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Aurora Ellis