Boeing Seeks Redemption as It Readies Starliner for Yet Another Launch Attempt

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner is lifted into the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner is lifted into the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
PhotoNASA/Frank Michaux

Hard to believe, but it’s almost two and a six months since Boeing’s first failed test of its Starliner CST-100 spacecraft. Yes, it’s been a while, so here’s a recap of the past 28 tumultuous months, and how Boeing can finally get around to providing a viable commercial crew vehicle for NASA.

The two previous tests, one in 2019 (Orbital Flight Test-1) and the other last year (Orbital Flight Test-2), didn’t go well to say the least. In the first test, the capsule entered orbit, but then faltered and never reached the space station. in the second, fixed flaps kept Starliner to the ground. Boeing is developing this capsule under a $4.3 billion contract as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, but it is seriously behind schedule. The pressure is now serious.

In preparation for this second attempt at OFT-2, the Starliner capsule currently sits atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, expected to launch Thursday at 6:54 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, May 19. If all goes according to plan, the unmanned CST-100 will dock at the International Space Station on Friday. May 20 at 7:10 PM EDT. Starliner OFT-2 is loaded with about 500 pounds of cargo (mostly food), and the plan is for 600 . to return pounds cargo back to Earth.

Conceptual view of Starliner CST-100 in space.

Conceptual view of Starliner CST-100 in space.

Recent precedent is what it is, this itinerary is hardly a certainty. The issues that have plagued this program range from hardware failures and software anomalies to shoddy processes and organizational flaws. Boeing’s shortcomings as a NASA partner, the past few years have been fully in focus and enhanced by the achievements at SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew partner. Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon has been taking astronauts to the ISS for two years and brings them back home.

The launch of Boeing’s OFT-1 mission on December 20, 2019 was an early sign that things weren’t quite right. The capsule managed to reach space, but a software automation glitch caused the spacecraft to burn excess fuel, preventing it from reaching its target, the ISS. A subsequent investigation indicated a faulty Mission Elapsed Timer, causing the timing on Starliner and the missile to be out of sync. Starliner miscalculated its location in space as a result, causing the unfortunate fuel burn. Investigators also discovered a coding flaw that could have resulted in an insecure service module separator string. As if that’s the caseIt was not enough, the communication between the space and the ground was unexpectedly lost during the OFT-1 test.

The failed test prompted an independent NASA-Boeing assessment team matter 80 recommendations to Boeing, a long to-do list with improved testing and modeling, new development requirements, software updates, organizational changes and operational adjustments. The subsequent effort to act on these recommendations resulted in a 1.5-year delay for the Starliner program.

On August 3, 2021, Boeing was ready to conduct Starliner’s second test, the OFT-2 mission, but the Atlas V rocket never left the launch pad due to “unexpected valve position indications” in the capsule’s propulsion system. During the countdown, 13 of the 24 oxidation valves, which “connect to thrusters that break down and allow maneuvering in orbit”, got stuck in the closed position, forcing the team to abort the launch and yield the capsule to the Vertical Integration Facility for further inspection.

Boeing engineers attended Starliner after the failed launch attempt in August 2021.

Boeing engineers attended Starliner after the failed launch attempt in August 2021.

Engineers later determined that somehow moisture got on the dry side of the oxidation valves, forming nitric acid, and that friction from the resulting corrosion caused the valves to stick. Engineers blamed humid air in Florida therefors unwanted moisture.

During a media conference on May 3Steve Stich, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said the issue is “closed” and OFT-2 is once again ready to move forward. “It’s been a tough eight months, I’d say, but it’s very satisfying because we’ve solved the problem with the oxidizer isolation valve,” he said.

Michelle Parker, vice president and deputy general manager for Space and Launch at Boeing, told reporters that the “spacecraft looks great” and “performs great.” Boeing engineers were able to determine the cause and take measures to prevent a recurrence, she explained. Parker said the team chose not to redesign the valves but instead added sealant and other components to keep moisture away. By “sealing the path of ambient moisture,” she said, the team hopes to prevent a recurrence. “When you remove moisture from the valve, you eliminate the [chemical] response,” she said. The ground team now cycles the valves every few days to ensure functionality, Parker added.

When asked whether another failed test would mean the end of the contract for the commercial crews of NASA and Boeing, Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s ISS program, said the space agency will continue to work with Boeing on the project and that it will not. the intent is to stop now. “I suspect we’ll learn from the test flight,” and then “go fly the manned flight and then fly the post-certification missions,” he told reporters.

Indeed, a successful OFT-2 mission would set the stage for OFT-3 – a manned Starliner mission to the ISS. “We understand that we are going to learn a lot from OFT-2, and that will set the schedule, but we have a goal [to launch a crewed mission] by the end of this year,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s program manager for the CST-100 Starliner mission, at the May 3 press conference.

The problem with the valves, it seems, is not over yet. Boeing is currently brooding the ability to redesign the propulsion valves. “A valve redesign is definitely on the table”, Nappi told reporters from last Wednesday. “Once we have all the information we need, we will make that decision.” and if reported in Reuters, Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne are currently bickering over who is responsible for the faulty valves. Aerojet Rocketdyne and its lawyers allege that a cleaning agent Boeing used during ground testing caused the problem, a claim Boeing denies, according to Reuters. Boeing’s recognition of a possible valve redesign and its blame game with Aerojet Rocketdyne looks bad just ahead of the OFT-2 launch.

A manned Starliner test launch later this year would be great, but we better not get ahead of ourselves ourselves. All eyes will be on Space Launch Complex-41 on May 19, in what will be one of the most anticipated and crowded launches of the year.

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