Boeing Starliner OFT-2 Will Not Fly Until First Half of 2022

Boeing Starliner OFT-2 Will Not Fly Until First Half of 2022

Boeing and NASA made it official today — the next attempt to launch the second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of the Starliner commercial crew spacecraft will not happen until sometime in the first half of 2022. Both had been hinting at the length of the delay while expressing confidence that the problems that scrubbed the last attempt in August will be resolved. Boeing reiterated its “100 percent” commitment to the program even though the company must absorb the additional costs.

NASA recently reassigned two astronauts who were slated to fly on the first two crewed Starliner flights, the Crew Flight Test (CFT) and Starliner-1, to a SpaceX Crew Dragon instead. That made it pretty clear that finding and fixing whatever caused 13 Starliner oxidizer valves to fail to open on August 3 just hours prior to its scheduled launch would take a while.

The timing of the next attempt is also dependent on Boeing’s launch services provider, the United Launch Alliance, having a rocket available and for a docking port to be available at OFT’s destination, the always-busy International Space Station (ISS).

Michelle Parker, Vice President and Chief Engineer, Space and Launch, Boeing. Credit: LinkedIn

Michelle Parker, Boeing Vice President and Chief Engineer, Space and Launch, and John Vollmer, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for Commercial Crew, said at a media briefing today they are fairly certain they understand what happened, but are in the process of removing three of the valves from the spacecraft for additional studies. They will be taken to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL and subjected to a CT scan to verify the root cause of the failure.

The leading theory is that the valves became corroded when moisture interacted with oxidizer creating nitric acid, damaging the Teflon seals. Parker said it is a known phenomenon that oxidizer will permeate through Teflon depending on the length of time the oxidizer is in the system, but it is used because the two are compatible. Vollmer added that 60 days is the limit and only 46 had elapsed, so there was no expectation of a problem. The Aerojet Rocketdyne-provided propulsion system had been used in three prior tests and everything went fine.

What was different this time is the mystery. Parker said there is a small vent hole where moisture in the form of humidity might have entered. They plan to put dessicant in that location as a mitigation step and also install heaters and reassess how long the oxidizer can be present.

Boeing and NASA are still working through the fault tree of possible failure modes and no one was willing to put an actual date on when OFT-2 might fly, never mind CFT or Starliner-1. Vollmer simply estimated the “first half of 2022” for OFT-2 and, if that goes well, CFT — the first flight with astronauts onboard — by the end of that year.

Illustration of Boeing’s Starliner in orbit. Credit: Boeing

Boeing is developing Starliner as a competitor to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon through NASA’s commercial crew program, a Public-Private Partnership. NASA awarded each company fixed priced contracts in 2014: Boeing, $4.2 billion and SpaceX, $2.6 billion.

SpaceX successfully launched its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in 2019, and its crewed test flight, Demo-2, in 2020. Its first operational flight, Crew-1, launched in 2020, and another, Crew-2, earlier this year, delivering four-person crews to the ISS. Crew-3 is getting ready to launch on October 31. Crew-4 and Crew-5 are on the books for next year.

Starliner is far behind. The first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 did not go as planned. Boeing decided to refly it before putting astronauts onboard. Almost 20 months later, OFT-2 was hours away from launch on August 3 when it had to be scrubbed because of the valve malfunctions.

NASA wants two providers to take crews to and from the ISS for redundancy, in case one of them fails, and competition to keep prices down. The 2014 deal was for the companies to complete development of the systems under the fixed price contracts while NASA promised to buy at least six flights from each of them once the spacecraft met NASA’s certification requirements. After that, they can charge NASA whatever price they want. Neither NASA nor the companies have publicly revealed how much NASA already is paying, but NASA’s Office of Inspector General pegged it at $90 million per person on a Boeing flight and $55 million per person for SpaceX.

NASA’s goal in procuring these commercial crew systems as PPPs is that it will be just one of many customers for these flights. SpaceX already has sold two Crew Dragon flights to private customers. The first, Inspiration4, flew last month. The next, Ax-1, is scheduled for February 2022.

NASA itself needs just two flights a year to rotate its ISS crews who remain in space for about six months at a time. NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said today the plan is one flight from each company once Starliner is flying.

Stich insists NASA has complete confidence Boeing will come through.

I don’t really see any scenario where Boeing is not successful. The company is committed to these flights with assets important to Boeing. I can tell from the diligence of the team, the resources they’ve applied, and quite frankly the attitude and the professionalism and the can-do spirit of the team to go solve the problem and move forward.

Vollmer conveyed the same message from Boeing’s standpoint: “I will say we are 100% committed to fulfilling our contract with the government and we intend to do that.” He reiterated that Boeing, not NASA, is responsible for the costs associated with OFT-2. When the company decided to make this reflight it took a $410 million charge against earnings. Vollmer declined to say whether it will need to take an additional charge or how all of this affects Boeing’s profits.

The company will hold its third quarter 2021 earnings call next week.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.