Boeing will try yet again Thursday to send the capsule it designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station on a successful, uncrewed test mission. After two prior attempts to complete such a mission failed, Boeing’s goal is to prove the spacecraft can dock with the orbiting outpost. It must succeed before it can move on to missions with people on board.
Launch of the capsule, called the Starliner, is scheduled for 6:54 pm ET Thursday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. If all goes well, the Atlas V rocket will vault the capsule into orbit, after which it will detach and spend about 24 hours free flying through orbit before it arrives at the ISS and makes gentle contact, docking with the spacecraft, where it is slated to remain for less than a week.
On board this mission will be some supplies for the astronauts already on board the ISS as well as a spacesuit-clad mannequin, named Rosie, after the World War II-era Rosie the Riveter.
But “if all goes well” has proven to be difficult for the program, which Boeing originally hoped would be operational in 2017 but has been plagued by delays and development hangups. The first attempt of this test flight, called OFT-1, in 2019 was cut short because of an issue with the Starliner’s onboard clock. The error caused the thrusters onboard the capsule to misfire, knocking it off course, and officials decided to bring the spacecraft back home rather than continue the mission. It took more than a year to root out that issue and a series of other software problems.
More recently, the Starliner has been beleaguered by valve issues. When the spacecraft was rolled out to the launch pad in August of 2021, a pre-flight check revealed that key valves had been stuck in place, and engineers weren’t able to immediately troubleshoot the issue.
Eventually the capsule had to be rolled back from the launch pad. When engineers were not able to fix it at the site, it ultimately had to be taken all the way back to Boeing’s factory for more thorough troubleshooting.
The valves have since become an ongoing source of contention for the company. According to a recent report from Reuters, the subcontractor that manufactures the valves, Alabama-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, has been at odds with Boeing over the root cause of the valve issue.
Boeing and NASA disagree, according to the report and comments from NASA officials during recent press conferences.
Their investigation pointed to moisture getting into the valves and causing “corrosion” and “binding,” Boeing vice president and Starliner program manager, Mark Nappi, said at a press conference last week. That led the company to devise a short-term solution, creating a purge system, which involves a small bag, designed to keep out corrosion-causing moisture. NASA and Boeing say they’re comfortable with this solution.
“We’re in really good shape to go fly that system,” NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said last week.
But that may not be the end of it. Boeing revealed last week that it may ultimately have to redesign the valves.
“There’s a little bit of additional testing that we want to go do, and based on those results, we’ll solidify what kind of changes we’ll make in the future,” Nappi said. “We’ll probably know more in the coming months.”
If Boeing does move forward with a more extensive redesign of the valves, it’s not clear how long that would take or if it could further delay Boeing’s first astronaut mission, which, at this point, is years behind schedule. The hangups with Starliner have also cost the company about half a billion dollars, according to public documents.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, once thought to be the underdog competitor in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has already launched six astronaut missions for NASA as well as two tourism missions. The inaugural astronaut launch of its vehicle, the Crew Dragon, became the first to carry astronauts to orbit from US soil since the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011.