It’s not the warmth, it’s the humidity that grounded Boeing’s Starliner

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft to be flown on Orbital Flight Test-2 is seen at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 2, 2021.
Enlarge / The Boeing Starliner spacecraft to be flown on Orbital Flight Test-2 is seen at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 2, 2021.


NASA and Boeing officers mentioned Tuesday that they’ve efficiently eliminated two valves from the Starliner spacecraft and have shipped them to Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for additional evaluation.

The forensic examination—the two valves shall be inspected with quite a lot of methods, together with a CT scan—is a part of Boeing’s ongoing effort to diagnose the “stuck” valve subject that triggered an abort of Starliner’s uncrewed check flight on August 3. With lower than 5 hours remaining in the countdown to launch, throughout a routine process, 13 of the 24 valves that management the circulate of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer by way of the service module of the spacecraft would not cycle between closed and open.

An preliminary diagnostic effort at the launch pad yielded no outcomes, so the Atlas V rocket and spacecraft had been rolled again to an integration facility. After extra inspection and testing there, engineers determined to “de-stack” the spacecraft and return it to Boeing’s spacecraft processing constructing at Kennedy Space Center. This finally led to additional dissection of the car and removing of a number of valves.

Corrosive humidity

Boeing’s chief engineer for house and launch, Michelle Parker, mentioned throughout a information convention with reporters Tuesday that the firm has a reasonably strong speculation for what went incorrect. At some level throughout the 46-day interval when the car was fueled—and when the valves had been discovered to be caught—humidity should have gotten into the spacecraft. This moisture mixed with the oxidizer and created nitric acid, starting the strategy of corrosion.

Parker mentioned dew factors at the launch web site had been excessive in August, and whereas the car was designed to function in Florida’s humidity, there may be bodily proof that humidity is nonetheless the offender. Boeing and NASA engineers now need to attempt to recreate the corrosive response in comparable check circumstances so that they are often assured of the root trigger and any countermeasures they implement.

The firm and NASA will press forward with work in Florida, Alabama, and at Boeing’s check web site in White Sands, New Mexico. All of this can take time, acknowledged Boeing’s program supervisor for industrial crew, John Vollmer. He mentioned Boeing is now focusing on the “first half” of 2022 for the uncrewed check flight of Starliner. (One supply advised Ars the “no earlier than” date is May 2022).

This mission is formally named Orbital Flight Test-2, or OFT-2. The firm is flying OFT-2 at its personal expense, $410 million, following an uncrewed Starliner mission in December 2019 that went awry attributable to software program points. The firm’s technicians and engineers labored lengthy and exhausting after the OFT-1 flight to repair the software program, solely to have these new {hardware} issues crop up throughout launch-day checks on the pad in early August.

NASA is hoping that Boeing can get Starliner up and flying so that it could have a second launch system, alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon car, to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Assuming that Boeing safely completes OFT-2, Vollmer mentioned the firm and NASA want to have about six months to evaluate information and put together for a crewed check flight. That would put the earliest potential launch date for Starliner’s first mission carrying astronauts towards the finish of 2022. More realistically, the mission might not fly till early 2023.

After this flight, NASA will certify that Starliner is prepared for normal, operational astronaut flights.

Buying extra Dragons

As a part of its industrial crew program, NASA ordered six “post-certification” missions from SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX efficiently accomplished its demonstration crewed mission in 2020 and is about to launch its third licensed crew mission, Crew-3, to the International Space Station on October 31. A fourth and fifth mission are scheduled to comply with in 2022.

During Tuesday’s information convention, NASA’s industrial crew program supervisor, Steve Stich, mentioned the company is negotiating further flights for SpaceX—and probably Boeing. He mentioned particulars about these contract extensions might be introduced inside the subsequent few months. Given the points mentioned Tuesday, It now appears potential that SpaceX might full its preliminary six-mission contract earlier than Boeing flies its first licensed mission. But Stich is assured that Boeing will get there.

“I have no reason to believe that Boeing won’t be successful in getting Starliner operational,” Stich mentioned. “We’ll get this problem solved, and then we’ll have two space transportation systems like we want.”