Launch of Boeing’s Starliner Delayed Indefinitely Due to Vexing Technical Glitch

Launch of Boeing’s Starliner Delayed Indefinitely Due to Vexing Technical Glitch
The CST-100 Starliner capsule positioned atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. (Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The second uncrewed test of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is on hold, as mission teams with Boeing and NASA troubleshoot an issue having to do with the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

An article I wrote for Gizmodo back in July 2020 featured the headline, “Investigation of botched Starliner test exposes Boeing’s weakness as a NASA partner.” That’s how I felt back then, and this latest news is doing nothing to change my opinion of the aerospace giant.

The Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission was supposed to get off the ground on Tuesday, but “unexpected valve position indications” on the CST-100 Starliner’s propulsion system prompted a delay, according to a NASA statement. The countdown for launch was already underway when the problem was detected, namely valves in the wrong configuration required for launch.

This is now the second delay of the second uncrewed flight test of the capsule, not including the lengthy delay prompted by the failed first test in December 2019, during which time Boeing had to address 80 recommendations made by the joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review team. Starliner was supposed to launch on Friday, July 29, but Russia’s misfiring Nauka module forced a postponement (for the latest on this, check out my post from yesterday).

On Tuesday, mission teams with Boeing and NASA tried to fix the issue by “cycling the service module propulsion system valves,” as NASA notes. Some potential causes, including those related to software, were ruled out, but the team needs more time to complete their evaluation.

Further inspections and tests are warranted, so the team plans to transport the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, with Starliner positioned atop, to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The team will power down Starliner later today and then move the rocket and spacecraft to VIF. A rescheduled date and time of launch has not been determined.

“NASA and Boeing will take whatever time is necessary to ensure Starliner is ready for its important uncrewed flight test to the space station and will look for the next available opportunity after resolution of the issue,” NASA writes.

Now is the part of my article when I’m obliged to say this is all a normal part of development and testing, that it’s good to be safe, and that problems should be expected, and bla bla bla. But as much as I’m rooting for this project, it’s clearly been a shitshow. Boeing needs to get its act together, whether it’s designing safe commercial crew vehicles for NASA astronauts or making pilots aware of frighteningly dangerous features added to next-gen aeroplanes.

Starliner will probably be a success, and it will afford NASA a second option for delivering its astronauts to the International Space Station (SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is already up and running). But the space agency should seriously consider its options when sourcing future partners.