Boeing deepens NASA’s Starliner probe, causing more delays



Boeing’s second chance to test the launch of its struggling astronaut capsule to the International Space Station has been delayed again, possibly until mid-2022, as NASA and the aerospace giant collide. give further efforts to investigate problems with the spacecraft’s fuel valves.

The postponement adds to the woes of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, in stark contrast to SpaceX, the privately-held company founded by Elon Musk. Its passenger spacecraft, Crew Dragon, has sent crews into orbit four times in the past two years, with a fifth scheduled for Halloween.

The Starliner capsule arrived hours after launching to the space station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in August, as part of a 10-day test mission with no one on board. The goal was to demonstrate that the spacecraft was safe enough to fly NASA astronauts. But some of the Starliner’s fuel valves, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a rocket engine maker, failed to open as expected during last-minute preparations for launch, prompting engineers to put the rocket back in its tower and ultimately the capsule to its factory.

“We had no indication that there would be a problem with these valves,” John Vollmer, Boeing’s director of commercial operations, told reporters on Tuesday. The valves are part of an ornate plumbing network in a detachable box called a “service module” that houses Starliner’s propulsion equipment. The components have worked in previous tests, including a test of the spacecraft’s emergency shutdown system in 2019, Vollmer added.

Boeing has yet to determine the cause of the valve blockage. Engineers were considering whether to introduce a brand new service module, but Boeing recently decided to keep the existing one, Vollmer said.

The current hypothesis as to the cause of the valve problem involves moisture that has accumulated near the Teflon seal of some valves. But with no clear culprits, the company now plans to ship two of the valves to a NASA center in Huntsville, Ala., For forensic CT scans, using machines similar to those used on humans to detect disease. .

Boeing built Starliner under a NASA contract worth $ 4.5 billion. It was part of a NASA program known as the Commercial Crew, designed to stimulate the private development of two competing space capsules capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX received its own contract worth around $ 3 billion, and its Crew Dragon capsule made its first unmanned flight to the space station in 2019.

Boeing’s first attempt to launch an unmanned Starliner in December 2019 failed to reach the space station due to dozens of software glitches, some of which had to be fixed while the spacecraft was in orbit. Starliner would have suffered what officials called a catastrophic failure if engineers hadn’t been able to quickly fix some of the software issues, a NASA group of aerospace security experts said at the time.

The company spent 18 months making around 80 fixes to both the spacecraft and the internal safety culture of the Starliner team, as mandated by NASA, and Boeing charged $ 410 million in 2020 to relaunch Starliner for another unmanned test.

Boeing is also bearing the cost of the latest Starliner delays, Vollmer said, without saying exactly what that cost is. “I do not expect any accusation against the government from that side,” he said.

NASA’s safety panel suggested in September that the agency and Boeing revamp the way they review the spacecraft’s readiness for future flights. “We approached launch without identifying the problem with the valve,” said George Nield, panel member and former head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of commercial space transportation. He added that there were “quite significant differences” in the way the two entities looked at issues before the launch.

Mr Vollmer said his team were following the panel’s suggestion. “Will we do something different?” That’s exactly what we’re looking at, ”he said, adding that engineers might decide to charge Starliner’s thruster closer to launch or find new ways to dampen the humidity.


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