Lost time in space: Boeing Starliner launch faces another delay

The United States aerospace firm has faced multiple delays in getting its Starliner capsule up and running.

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft is facing yet another delay, dealing a blow to the firm's efforts to convince United States space agency NASA that its craft can safely and reliably ferry crews to the International Space Station [File: NASA/Getty Images North America]

Boeing Co. will remove its Starliner capsule from a rocket to make a deeper examination of propulsion system valves after a launch was scrubbed last week, a step that could push the planned mission until next year.

Four of the 13 valves in the Starliner’s propulsion system remain closed and will undergo a “deeper-level troubleshooting” at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, the company said in a statement Friday. Boeing, NASA and rocket maker United Launch Alliance expect to decide on a new launch date after the issue is resolved.

A rocket with Boeings CST-100 Starliner spacecraft aboard was rolled out to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in the United States on August 2, before problems with the propulsion system forced Boeing to delay its planned August 3 launch [File: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images]

The setback is yet another blow to Boeing’s efforts to convince NASA that the craft can safely and reliably ferry crews to the International Space Station. The latest move will result in a lengthy delay for the Starliner’s next test flight, given the busy schedule for ULA and a shortage of available docking ports at the orbital lab.

Crews had exhausted every option to diagnose the valve problems while the craft was sitting atop the ULA Atlas V rocket. They now need to return the capsule to a Boeing facility for deeper analysis, said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager for the Starliner program.

It’s too early to say when the craft will launch, he said.

“We would certainly hope for as early as possible and if we could fly this year it would be fantastic, but at this point, I think that would be too much to speculate,” he said at a news conference.

Boeing fell 1.4% to $234.79 at 3:10 p.m. in New York. The stock had climbed 11% this year through Thursday while the Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 16%.

The company is trying to demonstrate that it can fulfill a National Aeronautics and Space Administration contract to carry astronauts to the space station, matching the abilities of Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

Pay Incentives

Boeing 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 full global return to service of the 737 Max aircraft after two fatal crashes.

Boeing engineers have been attempting 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.

The current thinking points to an oxidizer that can permeate seals in the faulty valves and then come into contact with moisture, which creates nitric acid and ultimately corrosion, Vollmer said.

“That is primarily what we’re looking at right now as the most likely cause for the issue,” he said.

Boeing also has seen some erroneous measurements of valve position indicators after a storm passed through the area. That issue is unrelated to the corrosion that engineers suspect is most likely at the root of the problems.

The company had 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 space station. The initial failure hammered Boeing’s reputation for engineering prowess as the company was reeling from the Max catastrophes, which were linked to flawed flight-control software.

Source: Bloomberg