Butch, Suni, Starliner, Atlas Ready to Go; Weather Maybe

Butch, Suni, Starliner, Atlas Ready to Go; Weather Maybe

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are ready for launch tomorrow on Boeing’s Starliner Crew Flight Test. This is their second try after a faulty valve on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas rocket scrubbed the mission on May 6 and technical glitches later discovered in Starliner delayed it until now. NASA, Boeing, ULA and the crew are convinced the problems are sufficiently understood, if not entirely remedied, to ensure a safe test flight. The weather forecast is 90 percent favorable, but there’s a chance onshore winds could be “feisty.”

Butch and Suni returned to Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday to prepare for tomorrow’s launch at 12:25:40 pm ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL, adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. They’ve been in quarantine since the end of April in preparation for the May 6 launch date. When it was scrubbed they initially remained by KSC, but returned to their homes in Houston after it became apparent the delay would stretch beyond a few days.

Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams return to Kennedy Space Center May 28, 2024 in preparation for a second launch attempt on June 1. Credit: NASA/Cory S. Huston

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke has been training with them for years for this flight and is their backup. He also will pilot the next Starliner launch, Starliner-1, after the vehicle has been certified by NASA, probably early next year.

Fincke told reporters during a news conference today that Butch and Suni are excited about the mission and “have every confidence” in the rocket, the spacecraft, the operations team, and the management team.

NASA crew of the Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test, L-R: Sunita ‘”Suni” Williams, pilot; Barry “Butch” Wilmore, commander; Mike Fincke, backup test pilot. Credit: Boeing/John Grant

Starliner has encountered one problem after another since the first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 that uncovered serious defects. Boeing decided to refly the uncrewed test before putting people on board. It was two-and-a-half years before that second flight, OFT-2, successfully took place in May 2022. Boeing and NASA were optimistic about getting this mission, CFT, off the ground in early 2023, but more issues emerged. Last July the launch was indefinitely delayed when Boeing discovered tape wrapped around wiring harnesses inside the spacecraft was flammable and soft link fabric sections of the parachutes were insufficiently strong.

Everything seemed ready for launch on May 6 as Butch and Suni settled into their seats on the spacecraft, Calypso, named for Jacques Cousteau’s ship of exploration. About two hours before liftoff, however, ULA discovered a malfunctioning valve on the Atlas V rocket’s Centaur upper stage and stopped the countdown.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-Centaur rocket on the way to the launch pad on May 4, 2024 in preparation for the May 6 launch attempt, which was scrubbed. Credit: ULA

They determined the valve had to be replaced which meant taking the rocket, with Starliner on top, back to ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility. They accomplished that pretty quickly, but in the meantime Boeing discovered a small helium leak in one of Starliner’s 28 Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters needed for in-orbit maneuvering and in the event of a high altitude abort.

NASA, Boeing and ULA set a new launch date of May 17 while they investigated the leak, but that slipped to May 21 and then May 25 and then June 1 after NASA and Boeing discovered a “design vulnerability” in Starliner’s propulsion system. If a series of extremely unlikely events occured, the spacecraft could have fewer than the required three redundant methods for returning from orbit.

After extensive analysis, they’ve decided not to fix either problem. NASA and Boeing concluded the helium leak is manageable even if the leak rate increases 100 times. However, if they detect the leak crosses a predetermined threshold during fueling tomorrow, they could scrub again. They also developed an alternate method for deorbiting Starliner if the very unlikely scenario occurs and the crew has been trained on it. Design or software changes may be made for future flights, but not this one.

The main message is that this is a test flight. They expect to find problems. The key is training the crew on how to deal with them.

Butch and Suni are experienced NASA astronauts and Navy test pilots. Fincke, also an experienced astronaut and Air Force test pilot, pointed out that they have been part of the process of developing Starliner for years and have ample opportunity to voice any concerns.

“We’re part of the team. We know what’s going on. We understand the discussions and the risks that are being talked about being mitigated. Butch and Suni especially have a very strong voice so that if they were concerned about something we would send it up our chain to the chief astronaut who would take it forward.

I think if you ask Butch and Suni directly, I can answer for them that they feel very comfortable and confident that we’ve chosen a good path forward. And as flight testers and as engineers this is something that we know is giving birth to the spacecraft — that’s a little dramatic — but when you have a new spacecraft you need to learn all about it.  …

“This is what we do.”  — Mike Fincke

NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich noted three new items that were considered during the Flight Readiness Review on Wednesday.

First, after one of the three parachutes on Blue Origin’s recent New Shepard-25 mission did not fully inflate, the company contacted NASA knowing that Starliner uses similar hardware from the same manufacturer.

One of the three parachutes on Blue Origin’s New Shepard-25 mission did not fully inflate. Starliner uses some of the same parachute hardware so Blue Origin is sharing information about what they know so far. NASA and Boeing have concluded it will not affect Starliner.

Stich said Blue Origin has not identified the root cause of the failure, but knows it is related to the reefing line cutters. The parachutes are reefed so they deploy in phases. The cutters that were supposed to cut the first reefing line on that parachute failed. NASA and Boeing determined it was not a problem for this flight after they “went back and looked at all of our test data on our cutters, we’ve fired them like 160 times” and never had a problem.

Second, SpaceX notified NASA about the degradation in the return signal from one of the reflectors on the International Space Station used to guide Crew Dragon to the ISS docking ports. Boeing ran simulations to determine if that could affect Starliner’s docking and concluded it would not.

Stich praised Blue Origin and SpaceX for sharing their data with NASA. “One of things I’m starting to see now, amongst all these entities that are flying to space, is the sharing of data back and forth, which has been incredible.”

Third was a last minute change in the cargo aboard Starliner. ISS Program Manager Dana Weigle explained a urine processor assembly required to distill urine into potable water suddenly failed. The crew drinks the water — “yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee” as many of them say — and it also gets rid of most of the volume of the waste. They can only store a finite amount of urine on the ISS in bags and other containers so getting a replacement pump became a high priority. The pump weighs about 150 pounds and they removed two suitcases of clothing and personal hygiene items (like shampoo) of comparable mass so they didn’t alter the mass properties of the spacecraft.

The bottom line is that the rocket, the spacecraft, and the crew are ready to go tomorrow at 12:25 pm ET. ULA provided a map of where the launch will be visible along the southeast coast, weather permitting.

The weather outlook at the launch site is 90 percent “go,” but 45th Weather Squadron launch weather officer Mark Burger noted onshore winds might be a problem.

“The winds will be a little feisty tomorrow not only in terms of the magnitude of the winds, but the direction of the winds” with an “onshore component nearly perpendicular to the coast.”  Winds are “highly variable” and “hopefully we’ll be able to get off without a hitch,” but will be a bit better on Sunday if needed.

Sunday is one of three backup launch dates if anything goes awry tomorrow. June 5 and 6 are the other two. After that, life-limited parts on both the spacecraft and the rocket will have to be replaced. Batteries on the Atlas V rocket, for example, will take 10 days to change out according to ULA’s Gary Wentz.

How long it might be before Starliner could get back in the queue at the very busy KSC and CCSFS launch sites is unknown at this time.

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