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Starliner setback: Boeing destacks spaceship from booster to solve propulsion problem, ISS launch delayed indefinitely

Starliner setback: Boeing destacks spaceship from booster to solve propulsion problem, ISS launch delayed indefinitely

Citing blocked valves in the propulsion system, Boeing has decided to remove the CST-100 Starliner capsule from the booster rocket at Cape Canaveral and return it to the shop. It is unknown if another launch will happen in 2021.

Boeing told NASA on Friday that the Starliner will be “destacked” from the Atlas V booster and sent back to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) for “deeper-level troubleshooting” of four propulsion system valves that remained closed after the recent aborted launch.

The original test flight mission, designated OFT-2, was supposed to prove that the capsule was ready for a crewed flight. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket would have lifted the Starliner into orbit, where it would dock with the International Space Station, and then return to earth safely. 

However, the planned launch in late July was postponed after the mishap with the thrusters of the newly installed ‘Nauka’ module sent the ISS into a spin for several hours. Shortly before the rescheduled launch on August 3, Boeing engineers discovered that 13 valves in the propulsion system were stuck in the closed position. Technicians were later able to reopen nine of the valves, but not the rest.

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An Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule is prepared for launch to the International Space Station for a do-over test flight in Cape Canaveral, Florida, August 2, 2021.
Boeing & NASA scrap Starliner test launch to Space Station as they struggle to fix ‘unexpected’ valve problem

Once the valve issue is resolved, Boeing, NASA and ULA will have to arrange for a new launch date – which seems unlikely to be before the end of the year, given the current schedule of space operations.

John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, tried to make the best of the situation, saying in a statement that “Mission success in human spaceflight depends on thousands of factors coming together at the right time.” 

“We’ll continue to work the issue from the Starliner factory and have decided to stand down for this launch window to make way for other national priority missions,” Vollmer added.

Though Boeing managed to successfully launch the first Starliner in December 2019, a software problem made it impossible to dock with the ISS. The mission was still considered a qualified success as the capsule safely landed at the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

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File photo: © REUTERS/Michele Tantussi
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Developed over the past decade with NASA funding, the Starliner was intended to facilitate the US return to crewed spaceflight. It ended up losing the commercial contest to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Crew Dragon capsule, which is currently the only US-built spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to the ISS.

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