NASA: Starliner Will Launch Only When Ready

NASA: Starliner Will Launch Only When Ready

One day after NASA’s safety advisory panel urged an independent review before launching Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew vehicle with astronauts aboard, the agency issued an assurance that it will launch only when ready. Crew safety is the highest priority and schedule adjustments will be made if needed, NASA said, but stopped short of agreeing to the panel’s recommendation.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel expressed a number of concerns yesterday about NASA’s plans to launch Starliner’s Crew Flight Test or CFT on July 21 with two NASA astronauts on board.

That date is only a launch schedule opportunity and “not necessarily an acknowledgement of readiness to conduct that flight test,” ASAP said, urging NASA to conduct an independent review perhaps through the NASA Engineering & Safety Center before committing to launch.

Late this afternoon NASA issued a blog post with reassurances they will launch only when ready, but did not agree to an independent review.

Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said they are taking a “methodical approach” and “the team remains vigilant on tracking new technical issues as we complete certification for crewed flight.”

The Starliner team works to finalize the mate of the crew module and new service module for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test that will take NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to and from the International Space Station. Photo credit: Boeing/John Grant

ASAP referenced “recently revealed” risks in addition to others of long-standing including parachutes, software testing, and “battery sidewall rupture risk.”

NASA acknowledged they and Boeing are reassessing “parachute system margins based on new data reviews.” As for batteries, they have been approved “based on additional testing and analysis, along with post-certification flight mitigations and a proposed battery upgrade for future missions.”

Software testing wasn’t mentioned, but NASA said two items that do still need to be resolved are replacing a by-pass valve on Starliner’s service module’s active thermal control system and evaluating risk from a type of tape used to protect wires from chaffing that could present a flammability risk.

“Crew safety remains the highest priority for NASA and its industry providers, and emerging issues are not uncommon in human spaceflight especially during development,” Stich said and “We will only fly when we are ready.”

He didn’t mention ASAP or its recommendation for an independent review.

Fueling the spacecraft for a July 21 launch would begin in mid-June “and there is some operational flexibility in that timeline that can be used if needed,” NASA said. An update will be provided “in coming weeks.”

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is the second of two commercial crew systems developed through Public-Private Partnerships to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, in service since 2020, is the other. The companies own the systems. NASA only purchases services from them, but they must meet NASA’s certification requirements.

ASAP has been closely tracking Starliner’s development especially after a 2019 uncrewed test flight that almost ended catastrophically. Boeing decided to refly that test flight before putting people aboard, but an attempt in 2021 was scrubbed at the last minute because of corroded propulsion valves.

The second uncrewed flight test, OFT-2, finally flew last year. The next step towards certification is the impending Crew Flight Test with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams.

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