[UPDATED] Starliner Is Stuck: NASA Delays the Return Again!

21st Mar 2024
[UPDATED] Starliner Is Stuck: NASA Delays the Return Again!

The Starliner, Boeing’s commercial spacecraft, is primed to carry astronauts into space for the first time. The CST-100 Starliner has undergone two flights already, both uncrewed. The first flight encountered a setback in 2019 when it failed to reach the International Space Station (ISS) as intended. However, redemption arrived with another flight in 2022, where it successfully achieved all its primary objectives.

Amidst a series of reschedulings and a “no updates” period, on 18th March, Boeing announced that spacecraft fueling has begun for the upcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT), which is now scheduled in May 2024.

In fact, these kinds of statements have been circulating since 2020, but a series of problems have kept the project grounded well past its initially scheduled launch date. So, will it ever fly? What’s with all the updates, fails, and possibilities to meet the deadline?

Update – 20th of June

NASA has announced a delay in Boeing’s Starliner capsule returning to Earth, citing ongoing thruster issues. The spacecraft, completing its first human mission to the International Space Station (ISS), is now scheduled to land at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico no earlier than June 26. Originally intended for a week-long stay, astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are now extending their mission duration to three weeks.

The extra days will allow NASA and Boeing to address thruster concerns that initially impacted Starliner’s ISS docking attempt on June 6. Additionally, an ISS maintenance spacewalk postponed earlier is rescheduled for June 24, just ahead of Starliner’s departure.

Update – 17th of June

Mission Dress Rehearsal
NASA and Boeing teams held an overnight Mission Dress Rehearsal in New Mexico to prepare for Starliner’s return. Credit: NASA

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft’s departure from the International Space Station has been pushed back. Additional tests are planned before astronauts return to Earth.

NASA and Boeing have decided to keep the CST-100 Starliner docked to the ISS until at least June 24. This delay allows for more testing, including engine checks not originally planned. Engine tests will assess interactions with the ISS, which is crucial after five engines experienced issues during docking. Other tests include cabin air temperature and emergency procedures.

Despite the extensive testing, officials have not addressed the issue of helium leaks. There have been five leaks in total – one before launch, three during the flight, and one after docking. However, there is still sufficient helium on board, so the mission remains on track.

Update – 12th June

NASA announced that Boeing’s Starliner has experienced a fifth, however minor, helium leak in its propulsion system. Engineers are currently working on preparing the vehicle for its return to Earth next week.

On 10th June, it was first mentioned that there were five leaks in the spacecraft. However, engineers estimate that the spacecraft has sufficient helium to support 70 hours of flight operations, whereas only seven hours are required for the Starliner to return to Earth.

NASA initially planned for Starliner to undock on 14th June, but on 9th June, they announced a delay to no earlier than 18th June. This postponement was to avoid a conflict with a 13th June ISS spacewalk, or EVA, by NASA astronauts Tracy Dyson and Matt Dominick.

Update 2 – 6th June 2024

Starliner has soft-docked with the ISS. The craft was placed on an extended hold 200m away from the docking ‘box’ due to sub-par performance of Reaction Control System Thruster units during a pre-docking test. Reaction Control System Thruster units were reviewed. Pilot Butch Wilmore had to pilot the craft manually for a length of time while the test data was being checked. However, the craft was on autopilot during the approach and docking. With the soft docking complete, the hard-docking process begins, and the astronauts will be able to enter the ISS.

With the first stage of the docking complete, there are now two different American craft attached to the ISS.

Update 1 – 6th June 2024

Starliner is expected to dock with the ISS some time after 16.00 GMT on 6th June. The mission is continuing despite the discovery of three helium leaks before the astronauts went to sleep. One of the leaks is in a place that had leaked previously, but the other two are new. To stop the outflow for the time being, two valves were closed. No announcements have been made about a timetable for examining the problem.

Update 3 – 5th June 2024

Boeing’s Starliner, carrying astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams successfully entered Earth orbit after a 1450 GMT launch and flight toward the UK. This marks the first time this flight path has been used for a crewed flight, and it provided the maximum possibilities for an emergency capsule separation before reaching orbit. The astronauts are currently slated to stay at the ISS for approximately one week.
If the mission is successful through to return, it will mark the acceptance of Starliner as a system for delivering and retrieving ISS crews. As an addition to working with SpaceX and Roscosmos, it gives NASA greater flexibility in crewed spaceflight.

Update 2 – 5th June 2024

Starliner successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The solid boosters have separated and the Centaur engine successfully ignited.

Update 1 – 5th June 2024

Mike Fincke, the back-up pilot for this Starliner launch, stated during the livestream before the launch attempt on 5th June, that the Starliner launch and certification is important for having options in case the SpaceX Dragon system or Russia’s Soyuz become unavailable. Fincke pointed to the fact that relations between the U.S. and Russia are contentious, despite good relations currently on the ISS.

Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator, also stated that we need to ensure access, in order to be able to return astronauts even if there are issues with the other providers.

_…_

Where To Watch Boeing’s Starliner’s Launch?

Updated on 5th May

On Wednesday, 5th May, Boeing’s Starliner mission will make its third attempt at launching the first crewed flight test. As the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron reported, weather conditions are 90% favourable for the launch, with the only concern being cumulus clouds. In case of another delay, there will be another opportunity at 10:29 a.m. ET Thursday, according to NASA.

Live coverage of the launch is available on NASA’s website from 6:45 a.m. ET.

Boeing’s Starliner Launch Called Off Just A Few Minutes Before Liftoff

Updated on 3rd June

On Saturday, 1st June, Boeing’s first attempt to launch its Starliner spacecraft was cancelled just less than four minutes before liftoff.

Starliner launch called off
Credit: NASA

The delay was caused by an automated computer system that managed the flight sequence during the final minutes of the countdown. In a briefing shortly after the mission was cancelled, ULA chief executive Tory Bruno explained that one of the three computer systems responsible for orchestrating the launch sequence was slow to activate, and the automated system halted the countdown.

The next possible opportunity for Starliner’s liftoff is Wednesday, 5th June, at 10:52 a.m. ET. However, the agency noted that mission teams have not yet decided whether they will attempt the launch at that time. Another backup launch window is available on 6th June.

No Repair Required: NASA & Boeing Forge Ahead with Starliner Launch Despite Helium Leak

Updated on 28 May

As of NASA’s recent statement from 28 May, it has been confirmed to proceed with the launch despite the detection of a helium leak.

Initially, the discovery of the helium leak within the Starliner’s service module led to a temporary delay in the mission’s schedule. However, after a meticulous analysis conducted by experts, it was concluded that the leak, originating from one of the spacecraft’s 28 manoeuvring engines, poses minimal risk to the overall mission objectives.

The scheduled launch date remains unchanged: the 1st of June. Pending any unforeseen delays, the spacecraft is poised to embark on its mission at 12:25 p.m. ET.

Boeing’s Starliner’s Launch Is Postponed Again: What Happened?

NASA, Boeing, and ULA (United Launch Alliance) continue to evaluate a path toward launching the Boeing Crew Flight Test. The agency and mission partners announced a joint media teleconference at 11 a.m. EDT Friday, 24th May. According to the announcement posted on X, the new target launch date is the 1st of June, with possible windows on the 2nd, 5th, and 6th of June in case the Starliner launch is postponed again.

Updated on 21st May

The launch of the Starliner, carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station, faces another multiple delays. Engineers aimed to resolve technical issues by May 25. Recently, NASA announced that the highly anticipated maiden manned voyage of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft has been deferred due to a technical glitch. This setback came on the heels of a recent delay mere hours before liftoff, caused by a separate technical hiccup. “The additional time allows teams to further assess the helium leak,” stated NASA on its official website.

Updated on 17th May

On Tuesday, 14th May, Boeing announced that Starliner’s first crewed flight had been rescheduled for 21st May. The team has repaired the oxygen valve of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, but experts discovered another problem with a “small helium leak.”

“The Starliner team is working to repair a small helium leak discovered in the spacecraft’s service module. NASA and Boeing are developing operational solutions,” Boeing said in a statement.

What Is The Reason For Boeing’s Starliner Launch Delay?

Updated on 13th May

The delay gives United Launch Alliance the opportunity to bring the rocket back to its Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) hangar near the pad. This is to replace a liquid oxygen pressure regulation valve in the Centaur, which began oscillating after being loaded with liquid oxygen. Launch pad crews noticed a buzzing noise as a result of this issue.

“After evaluating the valve history, data signatures from the launch attempt, and assessing the risks relative to continued use, the ULA team determined the valve exceeded its qualification and mission managers agreed to remove and replace the valve,” NASA added.

At a briefing following the 6th May scrub, Tory Bruno, the president and chief executive of ULA, expressed concerns that the vibration could have caused the valve to approach its rated life of 200,000 cycles, noting that the valve was vibrating at 40 hertz. Engineers would assess whether these vibrations constituted full cycles of the valve, with potential replacement required if so. However, if the valve was only partially moving, it might not be nearing its design life and could be retained.

NASA also stated that the two astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, who are part of the CFT mission, will stay in pre-flight quarantine at the Kennedy Space Center until the next takeoff attempt.

Boeing Crew Flight Test Targets A New Launch Date

Updated on 9th May

NASA has announced on X (former Twitter) that the launch of the Boeing Crew Flight Test to the ISS (International Space Station) is now targeting no earlier than 6:16 pm ET on the 17th of May.

The Launch Of The Boeing’s Starliner Postponed Due To A Valve Problem

Updated on 7th May

The launch attempt of a Boeing’s Starliner capsule carrying two astronauts was cancelled due to a valve problem on the Atlas V rocket.

“The rocket business is a business of 10 million parts, and only when the 10 million parts are working does (your rocket) fly,” Dillon Rice, a launch commentator for ULA, said during the live webcast.

The launch was scheduled at 10:34 PM ET from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Early in the morning on Tuesday, the 7th of May, it became known that launch controllers may make a second takeoff attempt on Tuesday evening. Meteorologists said there was only a 5% chance that clouds, wind or storms would prevent the launch.

Later, NASA announced on X (former Twitter) that the launch of the Boeing Crew Flight Test will take place no earlier than Friday, the 10th of May.

SpaceX Will Move The Dragon Capsule To Make Room For The Boeing Starliner

Updated on 2nd May

On Thursday, the 2nd of May, the SpaceX Dragon capsule currently docked at the International Space Station (ISS) will move to a different port at the the station to make room for the Boeing Starliner spacecraft. The autonomous docking process of Boeing requires access to the Harmony module’s forward docking station, which is occupied by a SpaceX capsule at the present time.

The relocation manoeuvre is scheduled to start at 7:45 a.m. EDT (1145 GMT). Then, the Dragon capsule will autonomously dock with Harmony’s space-facing port at 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT).

The live stream will start at 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT).

After CFT, Boeing Prioritizes NASA for Starliner Missions, Private Flights Possible Later

Updated on 29th April

Mark Nappi, the spacecraft’s program manager, emphasized to journalists on 25th April that the company’s primary goal is to successfully conduct the first Starliner mission for NASA with astronauts on board. Following the CFT, Boeing will ensure it has a sufficient number of spacecraft ready for upcoming NASA astronaut flights, which are expected to run from six to seven in total.

While private flights remain a potential consideration, they are not the immediate focus, as Boeing is currently prioritizing NASA flights through the potential retirement of the ISS in 2030.

“We’ve got plenty of time to think about what’s after that,” Nappi summed up.

If CFT’s flight goes as planned, the earliest possible timeframe for the first operational mission (Starliner-1), lasting six months, would be early 2025. That crew includes NASA’s Mike Fincke, NASA’s Scott Tingle, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Joshua Kutryk.

Starliner CST-100 Is Stacked on the Atlas V Rocket for a May 6 Launch

Updated on 16th April

Credits: Boeing

Recently, Boeing reported that the CST-100 Starliner is ready for its mission, having been transported to the launch site early on April 16. It travelled from Boeing’s facility to the ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral, where it was mounted atop an Atlas V rocket. Final system checks will ensure communication between the Atlas V and Starliner is flawless ahead of the May 6 launch, which is critical for the success of the mission.

What’s the Boeing Starliner Capsule?

Starliner Capsule
Credit: www.boeing.com

The Boeing Starliner capsule is a next-generation space capsule aimed at facilitating travel to and from low-Earth orbit. Developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, this innovative spacecraft is designed to accommodate up to seven passengers or a combination of crew and cargo for missions into Low Earth Orbit. Starliner has an advanced design featuring a weldless structure that enhances durability and enables reusability for up to 10 missions with a turnaround time of six months.

Back & Forth: When Will It Fly?

As of 19 March, Boeing has started fueling up its Starliner capsule ahead of the vehicle’s first-ever astronaut launch. The spacecraft, comprised of a reusable crew module and expendable service module, was recently transferred to the Hazardous Processing Area within Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Over the next two weeks, the propellant loading operation will be carried out by a team of technicians and engineers.

Starliner & team
The Starliner team recently moved the spacecraft to the Hazardous Processing Area. Credit: John Grant

According to the company’s update, once fueling is complete, the spacecraft will undergo final closeout procedures before being transported to United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. These activities involve tasks such as removing propellant access panels, applying environmental covers, conducting thermal protection system checks, and verifying weight and centre of gravity parameters before loading onto the transport vehicle.

The Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission is currently set for liftoff in early May. It will be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Florida’s Atlantic coast.  This mission will ferry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station (ISS) for an estimated 10-day mission duration.

Previous Starliner Capsule Launches: Fails & Tests

Second attempt to launch the Starliner
CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launched on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket in May 2022.  Credit: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

The first attempt to launch Starliner into space occurred on 20th December 2019. Back then, Starliner, as part of the Orbital Flight Test 1 mission, aimed at docking with the International Space Station (ISS) and orbiting Earth for approximately two days without a crew onboard. Riding atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the spacecraft initiated its ascent at 6:36 a.m. EST (1136 GMT) as scheduled.

However, excitement turned to disappointment when, 90 minutes into the mission, then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that Starliner would not reach its intended destination. Despite a smooth launch, an error in the capsule’s internal clock caused it to consume excessive fuel, and thus preventing a safe docking with the ISS.

In response, Boeing engineers made a controlled landing in New Mexico, utilising airbags for a soft touchdown – a critical phase of the testing process. A thorough review by a joint NASA-Boeing independent team identified 80 corrective actions to be addressed, encompassing testing protocols, software requirements, operational procedures, and hardware modifications.

After a long period of repairs and numerous delays, including technical challenges (stuck valves in the propulsion system), Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) finally lifted off on 19th May 2022, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and later achieving a successful docking with the ISS as planned.

Boeing's Starliner space capsule docked at the International Space Station
Boeing’s Starliner space capsule docked at the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

While OFT-2 carried no astronauts, it transported payloads to the ISS, including supplies and commemorative items such as banners from historically Black colleges and universities, Silver Snoopy pins, and Rosie the Riveter commemorative coins, symbolising the contributions of American women to the aerospace industry during World War II. But, are we going to witness a crewed flight of Starliner?

Future Launch

Visitors watching astronaut training
Visitors watch as astronaut Chris Ferguson practices for flight in the Boeing (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft. Credit: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

After enduring more than five reschedules, NASA and Boeing have set May 2024 as the target for the first crewed test flight of the Starliner. This mission aims to replicate the milestones accomplished during OFT-2 while introducing the crucial element of a crew on board. NASA has assigned astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams to pilot this pivotal test flight.

Boeing Starliner CFT commander Barry
Boeing Starliner CFT commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore & Sunita Williams. Credit: NASA

However, given the turbulent history of Boeing, including the 737 Max incident and other serious financial mishaps, the company’s reputation stands compromised. So, it’s reasonable to anticipate potential delays stemming from failed audits by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the ongoing Department of Justice criminal investigation into Boeing’s practices. We will diligently provide updates on all developments regarding the Starliner Capsule.

We’ll make sure to keep you posted on all the latest news about the Starliner Capsule.

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