A Boeing official said Thursday that the company is “backing away” from an attempted launch of the Starliner spacecraft on July 21 to focus on recently discovered problems with the vehicle.
Mark Nappi, vice president and program director for Starliner, said two problems were discovered on two spacecraft before Memorial Day weekend and that the company spent the holiday investigating them. After internal discussions involving Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun, the company decided to delay the test flight that will take NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station.
“Safety is always our top priority, and this is the driving force behind this decision,” Nabi said during a conference call with reporters.
The problems seem so serious that they were discovered weeks before the Starliner was due to launch on an Atlas V rocket. The first involved “soft bonds” in the lines that ran from the Starliner to its parachutes. Boeing discovered that these were not as powerful as previously thought.
During a normal flight, these substandard connections wouldn’t be a problem. But the Starliner parachute system is designed for a safe landing of the crew in the event of failure of one of the three parachutes. However, because the failure load limit is lower with these soft ties, if one parachute fails, it is possible for the lines between the spacecraft and the remaining parachutes to break due to the added stress.
The second issue involves P-213 glass cloth tape wrapped around the jumper wires all over the vehicle. These cables run everywhere, and Nabi said there are hundreds of feet of these jumper wires. The tape is intended to protect the wires from nicks. However, during recent tests it was discovered that under certain possible in-flight conditions this tape is flammable.
In 2014, NASA selected two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop crew transportation systems for astronauts to travel to the space station. SpaceX completed its first human flight in 2020 and has since flown nine additional crewed missions. Boeing has flown two uncrewed test flights of the Starliner so far and aims to complete its test flight with astronauts this summer.
Now it is not clear when the “crew flight test” will take place. Nabi said it was “possible” that the mission could fly in 2023, but he didn’t want to provide any dates. “I certainly don’t want to commit to any dates or timeframes,” he said.
Boeing will spend the next few weeks diving deeper into these issues and charting a path forward to address these and other issues. For example, Nappi also said that as Boeing was preparing to load propellant on the Starliner before the July flight, it found another viscous valve. Fuses have been an ongoing problem with the Starliner spacecraft.
Most likely, Starliner will see another major delay in this test flight. These new issues are likely to increase outside observers’ concerns about Boeing’s safety culture. last weekNASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee urged NASA to bring in independent experts to evaluate the Starliner’s viability.
“Given the number of challenges remaining to certify Starliner, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a thoughtful look at the remaining body of work regarding CFT flight,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, May 25. She believes NASA should bring in an independent team, such as the NASA Engineering and Safety Team, “to take a deep look at the items on the path to closure.”
that was before The latest problems have appeared. No doubt safety experts will worry about how Boeing and NASA didn’t discover these problems until the final weeks before the flight.
The Commercial Crew Program is funded through a fixed rate contract. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award from NASA in 2014, but because of persistent delays — initially, Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon were supposed to fly in 2017 — Boeing has already accrued fees for its $900 million in earnings. Nappi said Thursday that it is too early to say whether these issues will result in additional financial charges for the program.
Questions have been raised about whether Boeing will remain committed to the Starliner program, which is already a money loser. The company has been contracted to fly six missions for NASA following certification of the Starliner vehicle, which will not occur until after manned flight testing. Boeing has already received a lot of $4.2 billion from NASA in notable prizes, so it should presumably give some of that money back if it doesn’t fly astronauts for NASA. But the cost of flying those missions could be greater than any financing Boeing has to pay NASA.
When asked if Boeing officials had any discussions about withdrawing from the Commercial Crew Program, Nappi replied, “The discussions are not serious about that.”
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