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Boeing’s test pilot pulls himself from first crewed Starliner launch

Former astronaut Chris Ferguson says he must keep ‘feet planted here firmly on Earth’ for his family

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut, will no longer pilot the first crewed flight of the Boeing’s astronaut Starliner spacecraft, he announced Tuesday.

Ferguson, 59, commanded the final space shuttle mission in 2011. He retired from the Navy in 2010 and from NASA’s astronaut office in December 2011. Later that year, Ferguson joined Boeing’s executive team developing the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

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“Next year is very important for my family, I have made several commitments that I simply cannot risk missing, I’m not going anywhere I’m just not going to space next year,” Ferguson said.

A Boeing spokeswoman confirmed to The Associated Press one of those commitments is his daughter’s wedding.

He was set to be Boeing’s test pilot joined by NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke for the first flight with crew on board. NASA has selected veteran astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore to replace Ferguson as commander of the mission.

Wilmore has already been training with the team as a backup crew member since July 2018. According to NASA, he will now shift his focus to the spacecraft commander’s duties in preparation for launch to the space station.

“I’m grateful to Chris for his exceptional leadership and insight into this very complex and most capable vehicle,” Wilmore said in a statement. “Having had the chance to train alongside and view this outstanding crew as backup has been instrumental in my preparation to assume this position. Stepping down was a difficult decision for Chris, but with his leadership and assistance to this point, this crew is positioned for success. We will move forward in the same professional and dedicated manner that Chris has forged.”

Ferguson said the decision was difficult and he remains deeply committed to human spaceflight and the Starliner team.

Ferguson said he remains on the Boeing Starliner team, he just isn’t going to fly on the spacecraft next year as planned. He will serve as the director of Mission Integration and Operations.

This marks the second crew change for the Starliner test flight. Fincke replaced NASA astronaut Eric Boe who was removed from the flight in January 2019 for medical reasons, according to NASA.

Boeing still has to repeat its uncrewed test flight to and from the space station before it can fly astronauts. A new date has not been set for that launch but NASA and Boeing are targeting January 2021 with the second test flight with astronauts in April.

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