A Boeing official said Thursday that the company is “standing back” from attempting to launch the Starliner spacecraft on July 21 to focus on newly discovered issues with the vehicle.
Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Starliner, said two problems with the spacecraft were discovered before the Memorial Day weekend and that the company spent the holiday investigating them. After internal discussions that included Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun, the company decided to delay the test flight that would carry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station.
“Safety has always been our top priority, and that’s what drove this decision,” Nappi said in a teleconference with reporters.
The issues seem to have been seriously discovered weeks before the Starliner was due to launch on an Atlas V rocket. The first involves “soft links” in lines running from the Starliner to its parachutes. Boeing discovered that it was not as strong as previously believed.
During a normal flight, these substandard links are not an issue. But the Starliner’s parachute system is designed to safely land a crew member if one of the three parachutes fails. However, due to the low failure load limit with these soft links, if one parachute fails, it is possible that the lines between the spacecraft and the remaining two parachutes will break due to the added strain.
The second issue involved P-213 glass cloth tape being wrapped around the wiring harness throughout the vehicle. These cables run everywhere, and Nappi said there are hundreds of feet of these wiring harnesses. The tape is intended to protect the cables from nicks. However, in recent tests, it was discovered that under certain conditions that are possible in flight, this tape will burn.
In 2014, NASA selected two providers, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop crew transportation systems for its astronauts to travel to the space station. SpaceX completed its first human flight in 2020 and has since flown nine additional crewed missions. Boeing has flown two uncrewed test flights of the Starliner so far and aims to complete its demonstration flight with astronauts this summer.
Now it is unclear when this “Crew Flight Test” will take place. Nappi said the mission would “probably” fly in 2023, but he didn’t want to offer any dates. “I don’t really want to commit to any dates or timeframes,” he said.
Boeing will spend the next few weeks diving deeper into these issues and identifying a path forward to address these and other problems. For example, Nappi also said that, as Boeing prepared to load propellant into the Starliner before the July flight, another sticky valve was found. Valves are an ongoing problem with the Starliner spacecraft.
Most likely, the Starliner will see another significant delay in this test flight. These new problems are likely to raise concerns from outside observers about Boeing’s safety culture. Last week, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel urged NASA to bring in independent experts to assess the viability of the Starliner.
“Given the number of remaining challenges to Starliner’s certification, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and review the remaining body of work related to the CFT flight,” Patricia Sanders, the committee’s chair, said in May. 25. He believes that NASA should bring in an independent team, such as one from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, “to take a closer look at things on the way to closure.”
That was it HISTORY the latest issues arise. No doubt, safety experts will be concerned about how these issues were not discovered by Boeing and NASA until the final weeks leading up to the flight.
The Commercial Crew program is funded through a fixed-price contract. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award from NASA in 2014, but due to ongoing delays — originally, the Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon were supposed to fly in 2017 — Boeing has already incurred cumulative charges against earnings of $900 million. Nappi said Thursday that it was too early to say whether these issues would result in additional financial compensation to the program.
Questions have been raised about whether Boeing will remain committed to the Starliner program, which is already a money loser. The company is contracted to fly six missions for NASA after certification of the Starliner vehicle, which can only happen after crewed flight testing. Boeing has already received most of the $4.2 billion from NASA in milestone awards, so it will have to return some of that money if it doesn’t fly astronauts for NASA. But the cost of flying those missions would be far greater than any funding Boeing would have to pay NASA.
Asked if Boeing officials had any discussions about scrapping the commercial crew program, Nappy replied: “No serious discussions about that.”