Just when you thought the saga of Boeing’s Starliner program couldn’t get any worse, it just did. The first crewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has been delayed indefinitely due to two serious issues with the crew vehicle meant to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Following numerous delays, Starliner was finally scheduled for launch on July 21, carrying NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore to low Earth orbit. During a media briefing on Thursday, however, NASA and Boeing announced that they have decided to stand down from the launch attempt to address recently discovered issues with the CST-100 Starliner crew vehicle.
The two new safety hazards were discovered in the past week during an in-depth review of the vehicle. The first has to do with the load capacity of Starliner’s three parachutes, which are designed to safely land the crew vehicle. The failure load limit of the fabric sections on the parachutes is lower than expected, meaning that if one parachute fails, the remaining two would not be able to slow down the Starliner vehicle on its way down to land in New Mexico.
The second recently discovered issue involves hundreds of feet of protective tape used to cover the wiring harnesses inside the Starliner vehicle, which turned out to be flammable. At this point, it’s too late to get rid of the flammable tape without causing more damage to the vehicle. “It’s highly unlikely that we would go in and cut this tape off,” Mark Nappi, Boeing Starliner program manager and vice president, told reporters during Thursday’s briefing. “So we’re looking at solutions that would provide for essentially another type of wrapping over the existing tape in the most vulnerable areas that reduces the risk of fire hazard.”
Yikes, that does not sound ideal. It’s safe to assume that a lot more work needs to be done before Starliner is ready to launch two astronauts to space, so another launch date will likely not happen anytime soon. A subsequent uncrewed launch is also not out of the question. “We are now determining when we will be ready to launch, but anticipate additional parachute testing,” Boeing wrote in a statement. “We are committed to the Starliner program and are working closely with NASA to identify a new launch date.”
There have been numerous other issues that have plagued Boeing’s Starliner program from the start. The company is under a $US4.3 ($6) billion contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to transport astronauts back and forth to the ISS on board Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, the same way that NASA’s other commercial partner SpaceX does using its Dragon capsule. Except SpaceX is already way ahead of the game, recently launching its sixth crew to the ISS while Boeing still remains at zero. For Boeing, it’s a fixed-price contract, so the company is having to cover all overage costs.
In May 2022, Boeing completed the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), the second uncrewed test flight of Starliner, setting the stage for a crewed test flight. But OFT-2 was far from perfect, with the failure of a thruster used for orbital manoeuvring, in addition to a slew of problems and delays that have marred the program from the start.
Boeing’s Starliner crewed test flight was originally scheduled for February and then later moved to late April before its latest July launch date. The test flight is meant to usher in the final process of certifying the Starliner spacecraft for regular crewed flights to the space station. At this point, NASA’s commitment to its commercial partner seems excessive, especially considering the recently exposed safety risks. It’s not clear when Starliner will be given the green light for flight, but it should not happen anytime soon.
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