Boeing is considering redesigning the key valve for the Starliner space capsule

Boeing is considering redesigning the key valve for the Starliner space capsule

Boeing’s Starliner capsule for the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission is lifted onto the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket on May 4, 2022.

Frank Michaux/NASA

Boeing is considering redesigning the propulsion valves on its Starliner crew capsule, a crucial system that has kept the company from flying astronauts for NASA – and competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Starliner is the spacecraft that Boeing developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program after winning nearly $5 billion in contracts to build the capsule. But the development of Starliner has encountered several obstacles. A software malfunction interrupted the first unmanned orbital flight in 2019, and a problem with the propulsion valve was identified before the launch of the second attempt last August.

“A valve redesign is definitely on the table,” Boeing vice president and commercial crew program manager Mark Nappi said during a news conference Wednesday. “Once we have all the information we need, we will make that decision.”

Boeing is making another attempt to launch the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission, scheduled for liftoff from Florida on May 19. For this experiment, the company applied a sealant to the valves. But the solution is likely to be a temporary solution to the problem that left 13 of the 24 oxidation valves controlling Starliner’s movement in space stuck in August after moisture at the launch site caused corrosion.

Depending on the outcome of OFT-2, Boeing would then prepare for a manned flight test where the first astronauts would fly on Starliner. However, a valve redesign may further delay that manned launch as Boeing needs to test the solution and NASA needs to certify the solution.

To date, Boeing has spent $595 million as a result of delays in working under a fixed-price contract with NASA to develop Starliner. The space agency last year took the rare step of transferring astronauts from Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which just launched the company’s seventh manned spaceflight.

Reuters initially reported, citing sources, that Boeing would redesign the power valves manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, although neither the planemaker nor NASA had previously announced the plans. Nappi confirmed that Boeing “has been looking at options for at least a month, if not more.”

For now, Nappi said Boeing wants to “do a little more testing” to better understand how “those nitrates form inside” the valves, with those results leading an established team.

“We are very confident that we have a system for OFT-2 that will work properly,” said Nappi.

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