Boeing’s Starliner May Not Fly Until 2022

Boeing’s Starliner May Not Fly Until 2022

A NASA official said today that Boeing is still troubleshooting what went wrong with its Starliner spacecraft in August, scrubbing the test flight just hours before launch. They are still working on a schedule, but she said it could be next year before the flight can be attempted again.

On August 3, Boeing was getting ready for its Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2). This second uncrewed test flight of Starliner, a competitor to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for “commercial crew” services taking NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, itself was the result of an earlier problem. The first OFT, in December 2019, suffered software failures and although it launched and landed safely, could have ended catastrophically if one of the software issues had not been caught at the last minute.

Boeing decided to refly the spacecraft without a crew before putting people on board. Since it is a fixed price contract, Boeing must pay the additional costs.

OFT-2 is that reflight. It took 20 months, but on August 3 the company and NASA thought they were ready to go. Starliner was on the launch pad atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, just two hours away from launch. Suddenly, the launch was scrubbed.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on top of its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, August 2, 2021.

Boeing later explained that 13 of the 64 valves in Starliner’s propulsion system failed to open. Boeing is still trying to figure out why. They had worked perfectly during a test 5 weeks earlier. asked Boeing for an update last week, six weeks after the scrub, and was told the root cause still was not determined.

The team continues to work several troubleshooting efforts in parallel to resolve the oxidizer isolation valve issue that delayed Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test-2 mission. Testing is taking place both on the vehicle and in offline labs. Progress is being made to eliminate potential causes through a detailed fault tree analysis. Upcoming OFT-2 launch opportunities will be evaluated by Boeing, NASA and United Launch Alliance once our root cause analysis and corrective action plan help us define the appropriate path back to the launch pad. — Boeing spokesperson, Sept, 15, 2021

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for the Space Operations Mission Directorate. Photo credit: NASA

Today, Kathy Lueders, who as of today is NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations, said the launch may not take place until 2022.

The valves are in the Starliner’s service module and will have to be removed. They are looking at whether they should replace the service module with another one and will make a decision “over the next few weeks.”

I think right now the timeline and the manifest through the end of the year is pretty tight right now, so my gut is it would probably more likely be next year, but we’re working through that timeline. I don’t think we’re ready to formally address when exactly the OFT-2 mission is, but I think the team is making great progress on further troubleshooting and I absolutely know we’re going to fix this problem before we fly. — Kathy Lueders

Lueders headed NASA’s commercial crew program until last summer when she was promoted to run the agency’s entire human spaceflight program as Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

Today, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson split HEOMD into two — the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) and the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD).  Lueders is now AA for SOMD and Jim Free was appointed to lead ESDMD.  The commercial crew program remains within her portfolio. Her Starliner comments today were made during a teleconference about the reorganization.

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