Boeing’s astronaut capsule has been grounded for months and possibly even into next year due to an annoying valve problem.
Boeing and NASA officials said Friday that the Starliner capsule will be removed from the top of the rocket and returned to the Kennedy Space Center hangar for more extensive repairs.
Starliner was about to fly to the International Space Station on a repeat test flight last week — carrying a mannequin but no astronauts — when the problem arose. A similar capsule was plagued with software issues in 2019 that prevented it from reaching the space station.
“We are clearly disappointed,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “We will fly this test when we are ready to fly it and it is safe to do so.”
Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human exploration agency, said it’s “another example of why these demo missions are so important to us… to make sure we wrung out the system before deploying our crews.”
Boeing’s performance is in stark contrast to that of SpaceX, NASA’s other contracted taxi service. SpaceX has flown 10 astronauts to the space station in just over a year, and four more will be launched aboard the company’s Dragon capsule in late October. Elon Musk’s company will have another first next month when it launches a billionaire into orbit with three guests, two of them contest winners.
Vollmer said moisture in the air somehow infiltrated 13 valves in the capsule’s propulsion system. That moisture combined with a corrosive fuel-burning chemical that had gotten past the seals, preventing the valves from opening as required before the Aug. 3 launch attempt.
By Friday, nine of the valves had been repaired. The other four require more invasive work.
Rain from a severe thunderstorm soaked through some of the capsule’s thrusters onto the pad, but engineers don’t believe this is the same moisture that caused the valves to stick. Engineers are trying to figure out how and when the moisture got there; it could have been during assembly or much later, Vollmer said.
The 13 in question are among dozens of valves attached to thrusters needed to get the capsule into orbit and to the space station, as well as re-entry into the atmosphere at the end of the flight. All valves worked fine five weeks earlier and performed well in the 2019 test flight, Vollmer said.
Vollmer said it’s too early to know if the valves will need to be replaced or even redesigned. Aerojet Rocketdyne supplied the valves, along with the rest of the propulsion system.
Given all the uncertainty, Vollmer was reluctant to say when Starliner would be ready for another launch attempt. Boeing will have to work around other space station traffic, as well as a NASA asteroid mission to be launched in October on the same kind of rocket from the same path.
“Probably too early to say if it’s this year or not,” Vollmer told reporters.