(Aug 13): Boeing Co. faces a potentially lengthy delay of months for the second test flight of its Starliner capsule as the company tries to sort out a glitchy valve problem and confronts a busy schedule in coming months at the International Space Station.
The company said Thursday that it’s gotten nine of 13 valves working normally but had no update on when the Starliner could be ready for a launch or any dates it might be targeting.
“Over the past couple of days, our team has taken the necessary time to safely access and test the affected valves, and not let the launch window dictate our pace,” said John Vollmer, Starliner vice president and program manager.
The news is a setback in the company’s effort to show NASA that the ship can safely and reliably transport people to the International Space Station. Any slip could prompt a long delay given a busy schedule for United Launch Alliance, which makes the Atlas V, and a shortage of available docking ports at the space station.
NASA has planned a news conference on Friday to discuss the Starliner test flight.
An initial July 30 voyage to the orbiting lab was postponed after the thrusters on Russia’s newly arrived Nauka module misfired, sending the station spinning about 540 degrees.
Earlier Thursday, a Northrop Grumman Corp. Cygnus cargo vessel with supplies docked at the station and NASA plans another resupply trip later this month with a SpaceX Dragon craft.
For Boeing, the goal for the Starliner mission was to demonstrate that it can fulfill a NASA contract to carry astronauts to the space station and match the abilities of Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Boeing engineers have been rushing to determine what caused the spacecraft’s propulsion-system valves to indicate they were inadvertently closed early in the countdown for an Aug. 3 launch. That mission was eventually scrubbed and the rocket and capsule were rolled back inside a United Launch Alliance hangar, where teams could better evaluate the valve issue.
Boeing spent months revamping the Starliner’s software systems following a botched test flight in December 2019, in which the spacecraft was unable to dock at the orbiting lab. The initial failure hammered Boeing’s reputation for engineering prowess at a time when the company was reeling from two deadly crashes of its best-selling 737 Max jet that were linked to flawed flight-control software.
Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun has a lot riding on the Starliner’s success as he works to rebuild the company’s engineering culture and address quality lapses across its product portfolio. His compensation package includes performance awards tied to certain targets -- including a successful crewed Starliner flight as well as the safe return to service of the Max.
A second high-profile failure could prompt the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to review its options for the Commercial Crew Program, which relies on Boeing as well as SpaceX to haul astronauts to orbit.
Musk’s rocket maker has flown 10 astronauts to the space station in three crew flights, most recently in April. SpaceX’s next astronaut mission to the orbiting lab is scheduled for late October.
In Boeing’s initial test flight more than a year and a half ago, the Starliner was unable to dock with the space station because of a software timing error that caused the spacecraft to expend too much propellant early in the mission.
In addition, Boeing found and fixed a second software flaw during the flight that would have affected thruster separation and a disposal burn as the vehicle prepared for re-entry into the atmosphere. A review panel of the 2019 mission concluded that either of the two faults could have led to the spacecraft’s loss.
NASA subsequently reviewed Boeing’s safety culture and stepped up oversight of the company’s software engineering. Boeing announced a US$410 million charge early last year to cover the costs of a second uncrewed test flight.