Hard to believe, but it’s almost two and a A year and a half since Boeing’s first botched test of its Starliner CST-100 spacecraft. Yes it’s been a minute so here’s a recap of the last turbulent 28 months, and how Boeing might finally provide a viable commercial crew vehicle for NASA.
The previous two tests, one in 2019 (Orbital Flight Test-1) and the other last year (Orbital Flight Test-2), did not go well, to say the least. In the first test, the capsule made it into orbit, but then had a failure and never made it to the space station. in this second, plugged Valves kept Starliner on the ground. Boeing is developing this capsule under a $4.3 billion Contract under NASA Commercial crew program, but was severely behind schedule. The pressure is on in earnest now.
In preparation for this second attempt at OFT-2, the Starliner is currently on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket scheduled for launch Thursday at 6:54 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. May 19th. If all goes as planned, the unmanned CST-100 will dock with the International Space Station on Friday. May 20 at 7:10 p.m. EDT. Starliner OFT-2 is loaded with around 500 pounds of cargo (mainly food) and plans to return 600 lb cargo back to earth.
Setting recent precedent, this itinerary is hardly a certainty. The problems that have plagued this program range from hardware bugs and software anomalies to shoddy processes and organizational flaws. Boeing’s defects as NASA partners have been on full display in recent years and have been reinforced by successes at SpaceX. NASA’s other commercial crew partner. For two years, Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon has been bringing astronauts to the ISS and back home.
The launch of Boeing’s OFT-1 mission on December 20, 2019 was an early sign that things were not quite right. The capsule reached space, but a software automation error caused the spacecraft to burn off excess fuel, preventing it from reaching its destination – the ISS. Subsequent investigation revealed a faulty Mission Elapsed Timer, causing the timings on Starliner and the rocket to become out of sync. Starliner consequently miscalculated its location in space, triggering the unfortunate fuel burn. Investigators also uncovered a coding error that could have resulted in an unsafe service module disconnect sequence. As if that were soNot enough, space-to-ground communications were unexpectedly lost during the OFT-1 test.
The botched test led to an independent NASA-Boeing verification team output 80 recommendations to Boeing, a long to-do list that included improved testing and modeling, new development requirements, software updates, organizational changes and operational improvements. The resulting efforts to implement these recommendations resulted in a 1.5 year delay in the Starliner program.
As of August 3, 2021, Boeing was ready to conduct Starliner’s second test, the OFT-2 mission, but the Atlas V rocket never left the launch pad due to “unexpected valve position indicators” in the capsule’s propulsion system. During the countdown, 13 out of 24 oxidation valves marked “associate to thrusters that enable abort and in-orbit maneuvers” got stuck in the closed position, forcing the team to abort the launch and return the capsule to the Vertical Integration Facility for closer inspection.
engineers later found that somehow moisture got onto the dry side of the oxidation valves, causing nitric acid to form, and that the friction from the resulting corrosion caused the valves to stick. Engineers blamed the humid Florida air Therefores unwanted moisture.
At a media conference on Jan, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said the issue had been “closed” and OFT-2 was once again ready to proceed. “It’s been a tough eight months I would say, but very fulfilling as we solved the oxidizer shut-off valve issue,” he said.
Michelle Parker, Boeing’s vice president and associate general manager for space and launch, told reporters that the spacecraft “looks great” and “functions great.” Boeing engineers were able to narrow down the root cause and take action to prevent it from happening again, she explained. Parker said the team chose not to redesign the valving but instead added sealant and other components to keep moisture out. By “sealing the environmental moisture path,” she said, the team hopes to avoid a recurrence. “When you remove moisture from the valve, you remove it [chemical] reaction,” she said. The ground team now runs the valves every few days to ensure functionality, Parker added.
When asked if another failed test would trigger the end of the commercial crew contract between NASA and Boeing, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said the space agency would continue to work with Boeing on the project and that there was no intention insist to stop now. “I suspect we will learn from the test flight,” and then “fly the manned flight and then fly the post-certification missions,” he told reporters.
In fact, a successful OFT-2 mission would set the stage for OFT-3 – a manned Starliner mission to the ISS. “We understand we will learn a lot from OFT-2 and that will drive the timeline going forward, but we have one goal [to launch a crewed mission] Late this year,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing program manager for the CST-100 Starliner mission, at the May 3 press conference.
The problem with the valves, it seems, is not over yet. Boeing is currently considering the possibility of redesigning the drive valves. “Redesigning the valves is definitely on the table,” says Nappi told reporter last Wednesday. “Once we have all the information we need, we’ll make that decision.” And how reported At Reuters, Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne are currently arguing about who is to blame for the defective valves. Aerojet Rocketdyne and its lawyers allege that a cleaning chemical used by Boeing in ground tests caused the problem, a claim Boeing denies, according to Reuters. Boeing’s admission of a potential valve redesign and blame game with Aerojet Rocketdyne is a bad look ahead of OFT-2 launch.
A manned Starliner test launch later this year would be great, but we better not get ahead of ourselves ourselves. All eyes will be on Space Launch Complex-41 on May 19th in what will be one of the most anticipated and powerful launches of the year.