Glitch with vehicle’s propulsion system discovered in August still to be resolved, and crucial uncrewed test flight delayed until next year
Boeing is to delay the crucial test launch of its Starliner astronaut capsule due to an ongoing problem with jammed valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system.
This problem was discovered hours before a test flight in August, which resulted in the launch cancellation.
But fixing the issue is proving to take longer than expected, and NASA and Boeing officials told reporters during a press call Tuesday that the needed uncrewed test flight could be delayed for as late as mid-2022.
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.
Boeing said in August it had scrubbed the test launch of its CST-100 Starliner to the International Space Station due to a system glitch.
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 2020.
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 another glitch has scuppered its launch in August.
And this August valve issue is adding another sizeable delay to Boeing’s space ambitions.
Michelle Parker, the chief engineer of Boeing’s Space and Launch division, has according to CNN said the Starliner capsule is still back at a Boeing factory.
Boeing said will not resume flight tests of its CST-100 Starliner module until the first half of next year.
Boeing’s engineers have spent the past few months working to determine exactly what went wrong with the vehicle. The problem seems to be water leaking into valves used to funnel fuel for the spacecraft’s thrusters.
To resolve the problem of sticking valves Boeing is considering loading propellant onto the Starliner capsule closer to launch.
Before the cancelled August test flight, it was loaded 46 days before the scheduled flight. Before the 2019 test flight, they were loaded 35 days prior. That December 2019 flight was plagued by software problems, which meant the spacecraft was unable to dock with the ISS and forced it to make an early return to Earth.
Engineers are also working on a “purge” mechanism that should keep the valves free of leaky water issue.