Boeing’s Starliner Capsule’s First Manned Mission Delayed for Troubleshooting

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft is shown atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, preparing for launch. (ULA Photo)

Update: Mission leaders are currently assessing the timeline for Boeing Starliner’s inaugural manned flight test, eyeing a possible June 1 launch window.

The initial launch attempt to dispatch the capsule, carrying two NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station was postponed on May 6 due to a problematic pressure regulation valve in the Atlas V rocket’s upper-stage oxygen tank.

After the setback, Starliner and the rocket were brought back to the Vertical Integration Facility at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Launch Complex 41 for inspection. The compromised valve was replaced on May 11 and successfully passed subsequent tests. However, during these inspections, a minor helium leak was discovered in a thruster flange within the Starliner’s service module.

Boeing and NASA launch teams have confirmed the leak to be non-critical. The teams are now conducting a detailed review of the propulsion system to chart out any impact the helium leak may have on Starliner’s re-entry scenarios. This analysis will play a crucial role in an upcoming flight test readiness review, which is yet to be scheduled.

The soonest another launch could be attempted is set for 12:25 p.m. ET on June 1, with additional launch dates available on June 2, 5, and 6. Prior to this rescheduling, the team had aimed for May 21 and May 25 launch dates.

Steve Stich, head of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, emphasized in a recent update the necessity of thoroughly understanding the issues at hand, including an in-depth review of Starliner’s propulsion system and its implications for the mission’s Human Rating Certification.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are proceeding with their preparations for a weeklong mission aboard Starliner to the ISS, with a launch pending a comprehensive review of the mission’s readiness. “We will proceed with Butch and Suni’s mission following a detailed review of our team’s progress and flight plans,” Stich confirmed.

Upon successful completion of the test flight, Boeing’s Starliner is poised to join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in carrying astronauts to and from the ISS.

Technical hurdles have previously delayed the Starliner program for years, leading to over $1 billion in cost overruns. Boeing has absorbed these additional costs under the fixed-price contract terms with NASA for the development of Starliner.

This article was initially published on May 14 and has since been updated to reflect the new launch schedule.

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