Boeing additional delays check flight of the Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft

Boeing’s Starliner capsule sits on the launch pad prior to the launch of the OFT-2 mission on an Atlas V rocket.

United Launch Alliance

Boeing’s second unmanned flight test of its Starliner spacecraft has been delayed by at least two months due to problems with the capsule’s drive valves, the company said on Friday.

The latest mission – called Orbital Flight Test 2 or OFT-2 – was previously targeted for December 2020, but Boeing delayed the launch several times, with August 3 being the most recent target. During preparations on launch day, Boeing discovered that 13 valves on the spacecraft’s propulsion system were not opening, causing the company to delay launch.

While the company’s engineers restored functionality to nine of the 13 valves over the past week and a half, Boeing Vice President John Vollmer said the team had “exhausted all possible options” to fix Starliner while the capsule was on the rocket – which required a return to the company’s processing facility for further investigation.

According to Vollmer, Boeing is working with Aerojet Rocketdyne, the manufacturer of the valves, to identify the exact cause of the problems and analyze possible preventive measures or new designs.

The extra work means Boeing won’t have an opportunity to launch OFT-2 this month, NASA Commercial Crew program manager Steve Stich told reporters, and is “definitely on the other side” of delaying an agency mission scheduled for mid-October.

The OFT-2 delay announcement comes about 19 months after Boeing’s first flight test went wrong.

OFT-2 represents a repetition of Boeing’s first unmanned flight test in December 2019. This first Starliner mission was canceled when, after a successful launch, the spacecraft’s flight control system misfired and the capsule did not reach the International Space Station as planned. While Boeing was able to test many parts of the Starliner during the shortened flight, NASA declared the flight test a “tight call” and said the spacecraft could have been lost twice during the mission.

The company made dozens of changes, along with NASA, according to an investigation. Additionally, Boeing is assuming the cost of OFT-2 after allocating $ 410 million shortly after the initial flight test. Vollmer said Friday he wasn’t sure how much the delay and extra work will cost Boeing.

Competing with SpaceX

Boeing developed Starliner as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which the space agency began in 2010 when the space shuttle retired. The aim of the program was to encourage private sector companies to develop the most cost-effective, innovative and safest way to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The program was structured as a multi-stage competition in which companies competed for NASA contracts to build space transportation systems under certain parameters set by the agency. NASA eventually awarded the contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, with the latter aerospace entrepreneur receiving nearly $ 5 billion to develop the Starliner.

Built to carry up to five people to the International Space Station, Starliner launches on an Atlas V rocket – built and operated by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX and Boeing have been building and testing their crew transport systems for almost a decade. However, SpaceX’s successful launch of astronauts in May 2020 was a major milestone for the company and set Boeing to catch up. SpaceX’s launch marked the first time NASA astronauts took off from US soil since 2011 and the first time a commercially built spacecraft carried NASA astronauts.

Since then, SpaceX has flown two astronaut missions for NASA with its Crew Dragon capsules and safely transported a total of 10 people into space. Elon Musk’s company has two more crew launches planned for this fall, with the private Inspiration4 mission and the Crew 3 mission for NASA.

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