Boeing Postpones Starliner Launch Over Glitch

Boeing has confirmed it has delayed the test launch of its Starliner astronaut capsule because of a glitch concerning valve positions.

Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft is being developed in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Essentially the Starliner is designed to accommodate either seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit including the International Space Station (ISS).

Boeing’s Starliner vehicle joins a growing number of space competitors, including those from SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Delayed launch

Boeing said on Tuesday it had scrubbed the test launch of its CST-100 Starliner to the International Space Station on Tuesday due to a system glitch.

“Following today’s scrubbed launch of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, Boeing is working to understand the source of the unexpected valve position indications in the propulsion system,” the firm said in a statement.

“The issues were first detected during checkouts after electrical storms passed over Kennedy Space Center on Monday,” it added.

And for once it seems that technology may not have been to blame.

Boeing said that its engineering teams had cycled the Service Module propulsion system valves with the Starliner and Atlas V on the launch pad and “have ruled out a number of potential causes, including software.

It said additional time is needed to complete the assessment and, as a result, NASA and Boeing are not proceeding with tomorrow’s launch opportunity.

“We’re going to let the data lead our work,” said John Vollmer, VP and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Our team has worked diligently to ensure the safety and success of this mission, and we will not launch until our vehicle is performing nominally and our teams are confident it is ready to fly,” he said.

Timeline questions

Boeing said its engineers will power down the spacecraft this evening, and roll the rocket and spacecraft back to the Vertical Integration Facility on Wednesday for further inspection and testing to inform the next steps.

Boeing had hoped to conduct a follow up launch with a crew onboard no earlier than December, but Tuesday’s launch delay has thrown this timeline into doubt.

Tuesday’s flight of the Starliner was supposed to take off from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Boeing’s Starliner had been loaded with supplies for the International Space Station, and the vehicle sat on top of an Atlas V booster rocket flown by the United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.

The launch was originally planned for last Friday, but was postponed by NASA after the space station was briefly thrown out of control with seven crew members aboard.

That mishap with the International Space Station was caused by the inadvertent reignition of jet thrusters on a newly docked Russian service module. This was blamed by the Russian’s on a software issue.

Previous issues

NASA in 2014 had awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build their own capsules that could fly American astronauts to the ISS, as part of the US desire to lessen its dependence on Russia’s Soyuz vehicles since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011.

Boeing has already been beaten by SpaceX, which last November successfully delivered another four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) via its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

That came after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket had already carried two NASA astronauts to ISS in a historic first for a private company back in June last year.

Boeing’s Starliner meanwhile experienced a series of software glitches during its December 2019 debut launch, which resulted in its failure to dock at the ISS.

Boeing reportedly spent a year and a half correcting issues flagged during NASA reviews, but now another glitch has scuppered its launch.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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