Boeing will miss its Starliner launch window, the company has confirmed after a week of uncertainty. Four of the 13 stuck valves that delayed the OFT-2 launch last week are still not working, so Boeing and NASA have decided to unstack the spacecraft and rocket. Starliner will go back to Boeing’s factory for “deeper-level troubleshooting,” and that means a delay of at least several months. Depending on the root cause of the hardware failure, it could be much longer.
Luckily, Starliner won’t have to go far to get disassembled. It’s destined for a facility at Kennedy Space Center very near to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) where the spacecraft is currently sitting atop an Atlas V rocket. This building was previously used for the Space Shuttle program, but Boeing has since moved in.
Boeing hopes that the valve issue will be apparent once engineers can get a look at the spacecraft’s internals. The craft was supposed to launch on August 3rd, but 13 oxidizer valves in the propulsion system were stuck in the closed position. The valves were in the main engines (OMAC) and reaction control (RCS) systems, both of which are vital to spacecraft operation. Boeing contends there was never any risk to the spacecraft as the valves are always checked prior to launch.
Boeing was unable to get them working on the launchpad, and four are still stuck even after a week of work in the VIF. Thus, Boeing has no choice but to start taking things apart. The decision to cancel the launch is a difficult one for Boeing. Its Commercial Crew rival SpaceX has had a NASA-certified spacecraft for just over a year and is about to fly its third official crew mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
We've determined #Starliner will return to our factory for deeper-level troubleshooting of four propulsion system valves. With @NASA, we've decided to stand down for this launch window to make way for other national priority missions.
More: https://t.co/oycWeRz156 pic.twitter.com/UzCZN66451
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) August 13, 2021
The immediate time crunch is NASA’s next ISS cargo launch, which is operated by SpaceX. That mission (CRS-23) is currently set for later this month. After that, NASA has the Lucy mission, which will study trojan asteroids. That one is set to launch on a ULA Atlas V rocket, so NASA and Boeing will need to devote ground resources to that important science mission. Even if Boeing gets things worked out soon, it’s still going to have to wait for another SpaceX launch, the third crewed ISS flight, which is set for October or November.
This is not the first time Boeing has encountered a valve issue. In 2018, a leaky fuel valve in Starliner pushed back the demo launches by months, and that was without the added complication of finding space at the ISS. It’s possible Boeing won’t get to launch OFT-2 until some time in 2022.
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