Boeing Still Studying Starliner Valve Problems, With No Launch Date In Sight


Enlarge / Close-up of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule, white part attached, atop the powerful Atlas V launcher at SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral.

Trevor Mahlmann

Almost six weeks have passed since Boeing announced it would unstack its Starliner spacecraft from an Atlas V rocket and return the vehicle to its factory for “more in-depth” troubleshooting of the problematic valves.

On Tuesday, NASA manned flight operations chief Kathy Lueders said teams of engineers and technicians from Boeing and NASA were continuing to assess the sticky valve problem. “I think the team is making great strides in troubleshooting,” she said.

Just hours before launch, Boeing had to clean up the long-awaited unmanned test flight of the Starliner spacecraft in early August after 13 valves malfunctioned controlling the flow of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidant through the vessel’s service module. spatial. There are 24 oxidizer valves in the propulsion system, which is essential both for space travel and for emergency evacuations at launch. During the investigations on the launching pad, the technicians were able to open some valves but not all.

Since Starliner’s return to Boeing’s commercial crew and cargo processing facility in Florida, engineers have been able to collect data on the “dry” side of the valves, but they may need to remove the valves from the spacecraft. to assess the “wet” side. said Lueders. It would be a cumbersome process.

Boeing and NASA will reach a decision point in the “next few weeks,” she said, when they decide whether to remove the valves from the service module for further study. If so, Boeing will likely pull forward a service module intended for future crewed flight and use it for the Orbital Flight Test-2 unmanned mission.

A new date for this OFT-2 mission has not yet been set, and Lueders said one could not be set anytime soon. She suggested the mission would probably run until 2022. “My hunch is that it would probably be more likely next year, but we’re still working on that timeline,” she said.

In addition to solving the valve problem, the test flight must also find a time when a docking port is available on the International Space Station. According to NASA’s internal calendars, there are two such opportunities this year: the entire month of October and from November 12 to December 1. However, it seems unlikely that Starliner or its Atlas V rocket will be ready to launch either of these launches. the Windows.

Since Axiom’s private mission to the space station on a Crew Dragon has been delayed until the end of February, Starliner is also available to fly to the space station from January 3 to February 22 of next year. This appears to be the best case scenario for the test flight at the moment.

Boeing is redoing this orbital test flight at its own expense following an unmanned Starliner mission in December 2019 that went awry due to software glitches. After a successful unmanned test flight, Starliner could fly NASA astronauts later in 2022.

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