July 23, 2024

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NASA and Boeing overcome two technical hurdles ahead of the Starliner’s first crewed flight

NASA and Boeing overcome two technical hurdles ahead of the Starliner’s first crewed flight

Boeing and NASA have resolved two technical issues with the company’s Starliner spacecraft, including a “design vulnerability” that required a workaround, to get the capsule back on schedule for an astronaut’s first mission in space, officials said Friday.

The Starliner’s first crewed mission, a high-risk test scheduled for June 1, was derailed earlier this month due to a small helium leak discovered in the propulsion system just hours before it was scheduled to take off from Florida. Officials said additional investigations, which lasted more than two weeks, determined that the leak did not pose a significant risk to astronauts.

“This is not a real issue for our aviation safety, and we believe we have a well-understood situation that we can address,” Boeing Starliner President Mark Nappi told reporters at a news conference.

The long-awaited first crewed Starliner flight, with NASA astronauts Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore on board, is a final test mission before NASA can certify the spacecraft for routine astronaut flights to and from the International Space Station. This will be the second American crew capsule in addition to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will fly with humans in 2020.

Boeing and NASA’s investigation into the helium leak led engineers to discover an additional problem with the Starliner propulsion system that NASA Commercial Crew Chief Steve Stitch described as a “design flaw.”

Models showed that a cascading, but highly unlikely, series of problems during the mission could disable the capsule’s backup thrusters, preventing it from safely returning to Earth. A software fix provided a temporary fix for the mission, but Boeing and NASA will discuss whether a deeper redesign is needed for future flights, officials said.

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“It’s backed by test data, backed by flight data, and the guidance and navigation models have reinforced that this technology will work,” Nappi said, adding that the astronauts tested the system after the repair.

This broader problem and its ad hoc solution prompted NASA to conduct an additional flight readiness review, an extensive, multi-day meeting between agency officials, Boeing engineers and independent analysts to prove that the Starliner is safe to fly.

That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, three days before Boeing’s target launch date of June 1, at 12:25 p.m. ET. If necessary, Starliner also has options to fly on June 2, 5 and 6.

Boeing, which initially tried to launch the Starliner on May 6, is under pressure to meet one of those dates in early June.

Anything after June 6 could mean weeks or perhaps months of delays as some wearable parts on the Starliner and its Atlas 5 rocket, built by Boeing and Lockheed’s joint United Launch Alliance (ULA) project, must be replaced.

This would begin to conflict with ULA’s other planned priorities on the launch pad, such as the first launch of Amazon’s Kuiper satellites and ULA’s second flight of its new Vulcan rocket, a long-delayed experiment that could allow the Pentagon to launch missions.

Boeing is a longtime NASA contractor that has built modules for the decades-old International Space Station, but has never flown humans into space, a feat made elusive by ongoing conflicts in its Starliner program.

After years behind schedule and with unplanned development costs of $1.5 billion, success with Starliner is urgently needed as Boeing faces ongoing crises in the aerospace sector.

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Starliner failed in an attempt to reach the International Space Station in 2019 and returned to Earth nearly a week ahead of schedule due to dozens of software, technical and administrative issues that reshaped the relationship between Boeing and NASA.

The spacecraft will be able to make another trip to the International Space Station in 2022. (Reporting by Joey Rowlett, Editing by Nick Zieminski)