Incredible but true, Boeing once again postpones the first manned flight of the Starliner capsule

Eric Bottlaender

Space specialist

June 02, 2023 at 1:30 p.m.


Starliner CST-100 © Boeing/NASA/Cory Huston

It’s not easy to see it take off… © NASA / Cory Huston

The successful mission in May 2022 had left a positive note for the program between Boeing and NASA, but the capsule did not pass the final stages of certification due to material problems. She will have to be modified, and there is no longer any question of her bringing her first crew this summer.

NASA isn’t giving up, but Crew Dragon flights have a bright future ahead of them.

Oh no, again!

The takeoff of Barry Willmore and Sunita Williams was scheduled for July 21 and promised to put an end to the long development of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. Selected by NASA at the same time as Crew Dragon in 2015, she was shoulder to shoulder with the SpaceX capsule until December 2019… During her first orbital test flight (OFT-1), Starliner had no been able to reach the ISS and had revealed a significant number of problems.

A second unmanned test took place in 2022, delayed for more than a year by problems with valves and thrusters. This time, success was there, and NASA was only waiting for the certification of the capsule to authorize a final demonstration flight to the ISS with two astronauts before integrating it into its crew rotations. But hell! This 1er June, NASA and Boeing held a press conference to explain that the flight would be pushed back. Indeed, two particular elements must be modified to ensure the expected levels of safety and to certify the capsule.

This time it’s parachutes and cables…

The elements in question are different from each other. The first is at the level of the parachute lines used for Starliner. After study, it turned out that the latter resisted less well than expected, which could potentially pose a problem if one of the three parachutes of the capsule did not unfold nominally. It will therefore be necessary to take out the equipment, change the ropes, show the results with new tests and replace them (for a flight at the end of July, this equipment was already in place).

The other problem identified is related to the adhesives used for the cable trays within the capsule, which could under certain conditions be flammable (it seems that they are used in large quantities). These two concerns will probably lead to a partial dismantling of the capsule ready for its flight, which will lead to several weeks, and even probably several months, of delay. Depending on the work and schedule of the ISS, which incorporates many crew and material constraints, it is quite possible that the first manned Starliner flight will switch to… 2024.

Starliner OFT-2 approaching ISS © NASA

Starliner approaching the ISS, in 2022. A successful flight! ©NASA

The addition will be salty

It is Boeing who will pay for this delay, being committed to a fixed cost contract with NASA which has already paid its share for a long time. This overall additional cost for the American aeronautics giant was around $1 billion last year… and will naturally rise. Double whammy, if the flight with Starliner astronauts shifts too much, NASA will most likely assign its spring and fall 2024 crew rotations to SpaceX (Crew-8 and 9) for safety.

This also poses the problem of the Atlas V launchers, of which all the last units will be dedicated to Starliner, and which United Launch Alliance will have to store while completing the transition to Vulcan, its new launcher for which Starliner is, again, not still certified. In any case, the perception gap between Starliner and Crew Dragon will grow even further. The SpaceX capsule has so far taken 38 astronauts into orbit, and two to three additional manned flights should take place by next winter.

Source : SpaceNews

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