Boeing and NASA Put Starliner Launch on Indefinite Hold Following Technical Issues

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Things keep getting worse for Boeing as it works toward a launch that could make or break its NASA Commercial Crew contract. After scrubbing the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission on Tuesday, Boeing has opted to remove the spacecraft from the launchpad for further testing rather than attempt another launch right away. There is currently no date for another attempt. 

At issue are the anomalous valve position indicators, which were detected during a pre-flight check on Tuesday. Fearing this could signal an issue with the fuel system, Boeing called off the launch with the intention of scheduling another attempt in as little as 24 hours. However, the issue has not been as simple to solve as Boeing had hoped. It’s apparently not tied to software, so the spacecraft will need to be examined in more detail. 

Boeing and NASA will spend the day bringing the Atlas V rocket with Starliner on top back to the Vertical Integration Facility at (VIF) at Cape Canaveral. There, engineers will be able to go over the hardware to determine if there truly is an issue with the system. It might turn out that Starliner simply has a faulty valve sensor, but there could also be a more serious issue that requires another round of design changes. 

No matter the root cause, Boeing is running out of time. Part of the OFT-2 mission requires the vessel to autonomously navigate to the International Space Station (ISS), but the station doesn’t have unlimited space. If Boeing misses its August window, it might run into the time allocated to the CRS-23 supply run (a SpaceX mission). After that, ULA will need ground resources to launch NASA’s Lucy spacecraft that will study trojan asteroids. A few weeks later, NASA plans to launch the SpaceX Crew 3 mission, which again, will need docking ports on the ISS. Even a short delay for Starliner could end up pushing the OFT-2 back by several months. 

At the same time, Boeing needs to be absolutely sure Starliner is ready to go this time. OFT-2 is only happening because Boeing flunked OST-1 in late 2019. A computer glitch caused the capsule to completely miss its ISS rendezvous, and another failure could lead some to question the wisdom of continuing work on the Starliner. After all, it was designed for the express purpose of crewed launches, and no one will want to ride an untrustworthy machine into space. 

Perhaps the last-minute cancellation was a blessing in disguise. If the valve issue caused another failure, that might have been curtains for Starliner. At least this way, Boeing has a chance to set things right.

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