Boeing launches Starliner capsule for astronaut on unmanned test mission

The spacecraft soared into the sky at 6:54 p.m. ET Thursday aboard an Atlas 5 rocket that took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. After the rocket launched the capsule into orbit, the spacecraft fired thrusts to direct it in the right direction. Boeing officials confirmed the Starliner’s “orbital insertion” – an indication that the spacecraft was on track – about half an hour after liftoff. Starliner will spend about 24 hours on a free flight before arriving at the space station, where a smooth connection and docking of the station are planned. Expectations indicate that it will remain for less than a week.
The Starliner proved to be a difficult program for Boeing, which originally expected to operate the spacecraft in 2017, but It has been plagued by delays and disruptions in development. The first attempt on this test flight, called OFT-1, was halted in 2019 due to a problem with the Starliner watch on board. The error caused the propellers on board the capsule to malfunction, causing it to derail, and the officers decided to bring the spacecraft home rather than continue working. It took over a year to resolve this and a host of other software issues.
Recently, the Starliner has been filled with valve problems. When the spacecraft was moved to the launch pad in August 2021, a pre-flight inspection revealed that the main valves were stuck in place and engineers were unable to solve the problem immediately.

In the end, the capsule had to be returned from the launch pad. When engineers were unable to fix it on site, it was eventually sent to the Boeing plant for more thorough troubleshooting.

Since then, valves have become a constant source of contention for the company. According to a recent Reuters report, the subcontractor that makes the valves, Alabama-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, is at odds with Boeing over the root cause of the valve problem.

Boeing and NASA differ, according to the report and comments made by NASA officials during recent press conferences.

Mark Naby, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for Starliner, noted in a press conference last week that his investigation indicated that moisture entered the valves and caused “corrosion” and “bonding.” This led the company to devise a short-term solution and create a disinfection system, which includes a small bag, designed to keep out corrosive moisture. NASA and Boeing say they are comfortable with this solution.

“We are in a good shape to get into this system,” Steve Stitch, director of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA, said last week.

But this may not be the end of it. Boeing revealed last week that it may eventually have to redesign the valves.

“There are a few more tests we want to do, and based on these results, we’ll solidify the kind of changes we’ll make in the future,” Naby said. “We will likely know more in the coming months.”

If Boeing continues with a more extensive redesign of the valves, it is unclear how long that will take or whether it could delay Boeing’s first astronaut mission, which, at this point, is years behind. According to public documents, stopping work with Starliner cost the company about half a billion dollars.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, once considered the weakest competitor to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has already launched five NASA astronaut missions, as well as two tourism missions. The inaugural launch of its spacecraft, Crew Dragon, became the first to take astronauts into orbit from American soil since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011.

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