June 2nd, 2023
Two newly discovered issues have prompted NASA and Boeing to postpone the launch of Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, which was expected in July.
Both problems were discovered in a checkpoint review and had gone unnoticed for years. One stemmed from incorrectly recorded data showing fabric soft links on the parachute lines were stronger than they were. The other was new data that suggested the wire tape used extensively throughout the spacecraft might be flammable under certain conditions.
In a June 1, 2023, media teleconference, Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and Starliner program manager, said the issues were communicated all the way to the company’s CEO. It was unanimously decided this was something that required standing down from the July launch attempt in order to figure out how to resolve the new problems.
“We’ve created some flow charts for the tape. We’ve created some flow charts for the parachute system and what is it that we need to go do,” Nappi said in the teleconference. “We have to go answer all those questions and then we’ll spend the next five or seven days or so answering those questions and putting together schedules that support the recovery and eventual next attempt for CFT.”
Nappi said Starliner itself is in good shape. In the recent checkpoint review, all anomalies from the Orbital Flight Test-2 mission last year were closed and 95% of the Crew Flight Test certification products were completed, according to NASA.
For the parachute issue, because load failure limit for the fabric parachute soft links was lower than recorded, it decreases the factor of safety for the parachute system. Nappi said Boeing is looking at several ways to recover from this issue and did not rule out additional drop tests.
As for the wire tape, one solution might be to wrap some of the existing tape — hundreds of feet worth throughout the capsule — with a more fire-resistant material. Tape around wire harnesses helps prevent wire chafing and other potential damage.
Both the parachute and wire tape problems will likely require the removal of parts of the spacecraft in order to reach areas that need to be addressed.
Nappi didn’t rule out flying later this year. International Space Station program manager Joel Montalbano said if the issues are resolved in time, there may be a slot in the very busy ISS schedule in the fall for long-delayed crewed test flight.
“We are finding things now. That’s a testament to the process,” Nappi said. “It can be questioned, should we be catching these types of things this late? And that might be because there was a certain sense of optimism when some of the designs were done. Some of the processes were created many years ago, and they’ve led to some of these things kind of creeping their way through the system.”
Starliner’s Crew Flight Test is expected to see Spacecraft Commander Barry Wilmore and Pilot Sunita Williams — both NASA astronauts — fly a weeklong mission to the ISS to verify the vehicle’s systems.
Assuming all goes well, Starliner will be certified for regular crew rotation flights to the ISS alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Boeing was selected with SpaceX in 2014 to provide crew transportation to the space station. Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion while SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion.
The first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test occurred in December 2019. However, extensive problems with the spacecraft immediately after reaching orbit prevented the vehicle from reaching the ISS.
A second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test was flown in May 2022, but not before nearly a year’s worth of delays from summer 2021 stemming from corroded valves on Starliner.
After the Crew Flight Test, NASA has ordered six ISS crew rotation flights using Starliner. Combined with Crew Dragon flights, this should be enough for the space station program though its planned end in 2030.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.