Boeing’s Starliner Faces Further Delays, Now Eyeing April 2024 Launch

Boeing’s Starliner Faces Further Delays, Now Eyeing April 2024 Launch

When it comes to the inaugural crewed launch of Starliner, it increasingly feels as though Boeing and NASA are chasing the proverbial carrot on a stick. The latest delay pushes the earliest available launch date to April 2024, a month later than planned, in what’s a seemingly never-ending succession of postponements.

In another step in its stilted journey, Boeing’s first crewed CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launch is now delayed to no earlier than mid-April 2024, NASA announced in a press release. Although specifics behind the latest delay remain undisclosed, it’s an altogether familiar tale, as the Starliner program refuses to get on track. This recent postponement is likely related to recent concerns having to do with the spacecraft’s parachute system and the discovery of flammable tape within the vehicle.

The purpose of this mission, NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), is to finally give Starliner a full dress rehearsal, sending it, along with astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, on a jaunt to the International Space Station to showcase the vehicle’s capabilities and prove it’s got the right stuff for future crewed journeys to and from orbit. CFT will use a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, launching from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, and spending approximately eight days docked to the ISS.

However, Boeing, currently working under a $US4.3 billion contract with NASA since 2014, has accrued substantial losses amounting to $US1.14 billion on the troubled project. The CFT mission, previously scheduled for multiple dates including February 2023, April 2023, July 2024, and March 2024, has witnessed numerous postponements, with each new date in the calendar hinting toward eventual lift-off, only to be delayed once more.

Boeing’s journey with Starliner has been a winding road since the company initially targeted 2017 for operational use. During the inaugural uncrewed test in 2019, Starliner failed to dock with the ISS, leading to further tests and troubleshooting. In May 2022, Boeing undertook the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), a second uncrewed test flight for Starliner, aiming to pave the way for future crewed journeys. OFT-2 was not without its own tribulations, experiencing a thruster glitch, but Starliner did managed to dock with the ISS and perform a successful return to Earth. OFT-2 set the stage for CFT—a stage that now seems to be perpetually under construction.

A key technical issue has to do with the spacecraft’s parachutes, which have demonstrated a lower-than-anticipated failure load limit. Essentially, if one parachute malfunctions, the remaining two are likely incapable of sufficiently decelerating the spacecraft for a safe landing. For the fix, Boeing has reconfigured the parachute’s “soft links,” which bind the parachute to the capsule. A parachute drop test is planned for mid-to-late November, with the final parachute anticipated for delivery in December.

The second technical issue involves hundreds of feet of flammable tape, used for insulating wiring harnesses, inside Starliner. Engineers flagged this tape as a fire risk, prompting Boeing’s team to remove a significant portion and develop techniques to mitigate potential dangers, alongside the application of additional non-flammable tape to further protect internal wirings.

Looking ahead, if the CFT demo mission does eventually proceed successfully, an operational mission, PCM-1, could potentially occur in early 2025, according to NASA. This mission was originally scheduled for 2024, so that represents yet another delay. What’s more, NASA says it may very well use a SpaceX Crew Dragon for that early 2025 mission—the 10th commercial crew rotation mission to the ISS.

Indeed, NASA appears to be faring quite well in the absence of Starliner, relying on SpaceX to ferry its astronauts to the orbital lab. Starliner, while currently marred by continual technical troubles and delays, could still be a key vehicle for NASA, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

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