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Boeing, NASA delay astronaut capsule launch do-over

Boeing's Starliner, that will fly Starliner's Crew Flight Test, at the acoustic testing at Boeing's spacecraft test facilities in El Segundo, California. (NASA and Boeing/WikiCommons)

A high-stakes, do-over test launch of Boeing Co.’s Starliner astronaut capsule planned for this week will be on hold until the company determines the cause of a valve problem in the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

The uncrewed launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida was originally set for Friday, then postponed until Tuesday at 10:20 a.m. Pacific time. It was scrubbed Tuesday morning after engineers found “unexpected valve position indications” in the capsule’s propulsion system.

Boeing and NASA said in a joint statement earlier Tuesday that they were assessing the situation and would give updates about a possible launch attempt Wednesday. But later in the day, Boeing said it needed more time for further inspection and testing, though engineering teams had ruled out “a number” of potential causes. The company did not list a new launch date.

The capsule is set to be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said the Atlas rocket is fine.

A successful flight test is necessary for Boeing to prove to NASA that it is ready to launch astronauts to the International Space Station.

In 2019, an uncrewed Starliner capsule failed to reach the space station after a faulty timer on the craft triggered the spacecraft to burn too much propellent too early. The craft was forced to return to Earth ahead of schedule.

Boeing and NASA launched an investigation into the mishap and found that software problems were at the root of the timer issue, as well as a separate issue that could have caused two parts of the spacecraft to hit each other during a planned separation.

Last year, Boeing said it would redo the uncrewed flight test on its own dime to prove its system was ready. The company recorded a $410-million charge in its earnings to cover the additional mission.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded multibillion-dollar NASA contracts in 2014 to develop separate crew capsules that could ferry the agency’s astronauts to the space station and end the U.S.’ reliance on Russia for astronaut transportation.

In May 2019, SpaceX successfully launched an uncrewed version of its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station. Six months later, the Hawthorne company launched two NASA astronauts in the capsule on a test flight to the station and brought them back to Earth. SpaceX has since launched two more crewed missions to the station.

“Boeing is about two years behind SpaceX and in that time span, SpaceX has become the establishment player for NASA,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at market research firm Teal Group. “Boeing has to use this as a way to remind NASA that they also are potentially a reliable provider.”

The Starliner launch comes at a rocky time for Boeing’s space division. Last month, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to launch the planned Europa Clipper spacecraft en route to Jupiter’s moon. That spacecraft was expected to fly on the Space Launch System, a massive NASA-owned rocket built by Boeing that has been long delayed and is over budget.


© 2021 Los Angeles Times

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