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Boeing still studying Starliner valve issues, with no launch date in sight

Boeing still studying Starliner valve issues, with no launch date in sight

Photo of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft.
Enlarge / Close-up of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule, white room attached, atop the mighty Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41.

Trevor Mahlmann

Nearly six weeks have passed since Boeing said it would de-stack its Starliner spacecraft from an Atlas V rocket and return the vehicle to its factory for “deeper-level” troubleshooting of problematic valves.

On Tuesday, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight operations said teams of engineers and technicians from Boeing and NASA are continuing to assess the issue with sticky valves. “I think the team’s making great progress on further troubleshooting,” said Kathy Lueders of NASA.

Just hours before launch, Boeing had to scrub the much anticipated uncrewed test flight of the Starliner spacecraft in early August after 13 valves that control the flow of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer through the service module of the spacecraft malfunctioned. There are 24 oxidizer valves in the propulsion system, which is critical both for in-space travel as well as launch emergency escapes. During investigations on the launch pad, technicians were able to open some but not all of the valves.

Since returning Starliner to Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility in Florida, engineers have been able to gather data about the “dry” side of the valves, but they may need to remove the valves from the spacecraft to assess the “wet” side, Lueders said. This would be a cumbersome process.

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

A new date for this OFT-2 mission has yet to be set, and Lueders indicated one may not be set any time soon. She suggested the mission probably will slip to 2022. “My gut is that it would probably be more likely to be next year, but we’re still working through that timeline,” she said.

In addition to addressing the valve issue, the test flight must also find a time when a docking port is available on the International Space Station. According to internal NASA schedules, there are two such opportunities this year: the entire month of October, and from Nov. 12 to December 1. However, it seems unlikely that Starliner or its Atlas V rocket would be ready to go for either of those launch windows.

Because Axiom’s private mission to the space station on a Crew Dragon has been delayed until late February, there is also an availability for Starliner to fly to the space station from Jan. 3 through February 22 of next year. That seems like the best case scenario for the test flight at this time.

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

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