The first piloted flight of the Starliner spacecraft, plagued by Boeing problems, already years behind schedule and an unexpected one also ran behind SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, isfor the end of this year – or next – because of newly discovered parachute and wiring issues.
It was the latest in a series of disappointments for veteran astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams, who had planned to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on July 21 for the Starliner’s third flight to the International Space Station. and her first with a crew on board.
But during a series of overhauls over the past two weeks to make way for spacecraft fueling, engineers ran into two problems that could not be fixed in time: weaker-than-expected “flex links” connecting the suspension lines from parachute to spaceship; and tape wrapped around electrical lines that use a flammable adhesive.
Testing and analysis has shown that soft links have previously been parsed incorrectly and lacked the required safety margin of factor of two in scenarios where the loss of a parachute for whatever reason could overwhelm one or more used soft links by the two remaining parachutes.
The issue of tape flammability can be especially challenging because several hundred feet or more are used throughout the Starliner to protect electrical harnesses from chafing or other damage. Boeing must now ensure that a short circuit or some other source of ignition cannot trigger a fire.
It is still not clear why the problems were not detected earlier.
“Over the past week, we’ve worked to understand these issues,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager. He said the company had run tests and reviews to see if the risks were acceptable “or was it something that would require modifications or additional work?”
“This has reached the highest levels of Boeing,” he told reporters on an afternoon conference call, “even our CEO. Boeing unanimously decided this was something we needed to fix… preparing for the CFT (Crew Flight Test) mission. in order to correct these problems.”
A new launch target was not specified, and while Nappi said a flight this year was “feasible”, it seemed unlikely given the amount of work and further testing that will be required.
Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Wilmore and Williams attended an all-hands meeting to discuss the issues and agreed with the decision to withdraw.
“This team will resolve these issues and we’ll fly when we’re ready,” Stich said. “Suni Williams was representing the crew and she expressed that (they) are 100% in favor of the decision. They understand that the crew has crew safety first on their minds and they will fly… to fly .”
The Starliner’s troubled history is surprising to many because of Boeing’s reputation as a leader in human spaceflight, building the first stage of the legendary Saturn 5 rocket and its successor, the Space Launch System moon rocket, and serving as prime contractor for International Space Station.
In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX won NASA contracts worth $6.8 billion to build commercial spacecraft that could transport NASA and partner agency astronauts to and from the space station. The contracts covered up to six flights per company, plus one manned and one unmanned test flight.
SpaceX, under an initial $2.6 billion contract, has designed a manned version of its Dragon cargo spacecraft that would launch into orbit atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing designed its own capsule – the Starliner – under a $4.2 billion contract, relying on Atlas 5 for the trip to orbit.
After a successful pilotless test flight, SpaceX launched a two-man crew to the space station in May 2020 — three years ago this week — for the first piloted test flight. The company has already launched 10 crewed Crew Dragon missions, seven for NASA and three privately funded flights, carrying 38 astronauts, cosmonauts and civilians into orbit.
Boeing had hoped to launch its first crew in 2020 as well, but the company ran intoduring an unmanned test flight in December 2019. Before a second unmanned test flight could be launched, engineers ran into problems with delaying the flight to May 2022.
The second time around, Starliner completed its main objectives, robotically docking with the space station as planned and returning safely for a parachute-assisted landing in Utah. At that point, NASA was planning a piloted launch late last year.
But further analysis and revisions pushed the flight to 2023, and last April, the launch was pushed back to no earlier than July 21 to give engineers more time to review paperwork and analysis and conduct more tests. That job was nearly finished when the parachute and wiring problems arose.
In the meantime, NASA extended SpaceX’s initial six-flight contract to 14, providing astronaut ferry flights to the station through 2026. Boeing’s contract was not extended beyond the initial six crew rotation flights booked in 2014. Nappi said the company is absorbing the costs of delays.
Despite the delays, Stich said NASA is counting on Starliner to provide guaranteed access to the International Space Station through the end of the decade.
“There is an unwavering commitment to Starliner and a second crew transport system,” he said.
“Our ultimate goal is to have one SpaceX flight and one Boeing flight per year to rotate our crews to the station. And so we support Boeing and are doing everything we can during the investigation of each of these issues and trying to get to to the flight. as soon as we can when it is safe to do so.”
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