Boeing continues to struggle with spacecraft problems ahead of human flight

Boeing and NASA teams struggling to resolve a persistent helium leak in the company’s Starliner spacecraft have uncovered a new problem, a “design vulnerability” that could affect its ability to fire its engines to return from space, officials said Friday.

Although the launch remains tentatively scheduled for June 1 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., the problems are the latest in a series of a setback in the plans to take people to orbit aboard the troubled spacecraft.

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Before NASA allows Boeing to fly, it will do a thorough examination of the problems, and the remedies, and conduct a “flight readiness review” meeting on Wednesday, officials said during a media briefing. Officials from both NASA and Boeing said they would only proceed with the flight on June 1 if teams from both sides feel like it can be done safely.

The flight would carry NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore to the International Space Station and last about eight days in a test mission to see out how the spacecraft flies with humans on board.

“It’s our collective job to ensure we can fly this test flight safely and successfully, and to do that we’re going to understand everything about these issues and make the right decisions,” James Free, NASA’s associate administrator, said during the briefing. “That’s why we’re taking our time. We need to be deliberate about it. This is a new spacecraft and a new system.”

The problems are the latest in a series of issues for Boeing’s troubled Starliner spacecraft, as the company has faced a series of mechanical and software problems that have caused years of delay, cost $1.4 billion and counting and done immeasurable harm to its reputation as the nation’s premier aerospace company.

After the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract in 2014 to design a spacecraft capable to transporting astronauts to the space station. SpaceX, which won a $2.6 billion contract for the same work, has been flying crews for NASA since 2020.

Boeing’s first crewed test flight was initially scheduled for May 6, but a couple hours before the scheduled launch time, teams noticed that a valve that regulates pressure and pushes the flow of propellants on the Atlas V rocket’s second stage was malfunctioning and called off the launch. Teams had to swap out the valve, a “complicated activity” that required several days, Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew manager, said Friday.

Since then, Boeing has been struggling with Starliner’s persistent helium leak, which also helps the flow of propellants. In an update on May 17, NASA said the leak was “small” and “would not pose a risk at that level during the flight.” It added that the rest of the thruster system was sealed effectively, and no other issues were detected. Still, it has continued to test the system to ensure the spacecraft, which fires its engines in order to put the spacecraft on a trajectory to catch up with the space station in orbit, will be able to perform its mission.

As Boeing and NASA tested the helium leak, it actually got worse at one point, Stich said. “That gave us pause as that leak rate grew, and we went to understand what was causing that leak,” he said.

Officials have traced the cause to a bad seal, he said. Even if it continued to leak, the spacecraft could successfully complete the mission, he said, since it is one of many helium systems in the spacecraft. If the launch was not scrubbed because of the problem with the valve in the rocket, NASA and Boeing would not have noticed the leak until the capsule got to space, officials said.

As the teams were addressing the helium issue, they “looked across the propulsion system to make sure we didn’t have any other things that we should be concerned about.” As a result, they found an issue that Stich said could in a rare and “pretty diabolical case” knock out thrusters needed to fire what’s known as the “deorbit burn,” which would allow the capsule to return home. The system is designed for Boeing by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, said.

Asked why the teams didn’t discover the issue earlier, he said, when working with “very complex” systems “I think these things happen in human spaceflight.” He said teams had done thorough review of all sorts of scenarios that could lead to the thrusters failing.

“We had identified almost all of them, but this one set of unique circumstances we didn’t quite catch in our review,” he said.

Leading up to the test mission, NASA and Boeing said repeatedly that they would take the utmost care to ensure that the flight is done as safely as possible, and that the lives of the astronauts on board were the top priority. If Boeing is able to successfully fly the crew to the station and back, NASA would certify Starliner for regular crew rotation flights that would transport four astronauts at a time for regular six month stays.

To get to this point, however, has been a long and painful road. In December 2019, Boeing felt Starliner was ready for its first test flight without anyone on board. It did not go well. The autonomous capsule’s onboard computer was 11 hours off, so the spacecraft started executing commands for an entirely different part of the flight.

Engineers also soon discovered a second software problem, which could have caused the service module to crash into the crew capsule during separation ahead of reentering Earth’s atmosphere. The issues were so severe that NASA officials said the spacecraft could have been lost because of either of them, threatening the lives of astronauts, had any been on board. The flight never reached the space station but did return successfully.

The next launch attempt, in 2021, never got off the ground because several valves in the capsule’s service module were corroded shut. It finally flew a successful uncrewed flight to the station in 2022, but afterward discovered flammable tape in the capsule that needed to be removed as well as problems with the parachute system.

NASA and Boeing said in April they had solved all those problems and were ready. “I can say with confidence that the teams have absolutely done their due diligence,” James Free, NASA’s associate administrator, said.

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