Boeing zeroing in on complicated reason behind Starliner launch scrub

Engineers are zeroing in on the “root trigger” of a disappointing August launch scrub that grounded Boeing’s Starliner astronaut ferry ship: humidity-triggered corrosion in key propulsion system valves, firm managers stated Tuesday.

Corrective measures are being developed, however one other try and launch the Starliner on an unpiloted check flight to the Worldwide Area Station is not anticipated till nicely into subsequent yr, seemingly delaying the primary piloted mission to even later.

Within the meantime, NASA will proceed counting on SpaceX and its operational Crew Dragon capsules to ship astronauts to and from the station, with the subsequent flight scheduled for launch on Halloween. The subsequent Crew Dragon flight after that’s deliberate for mid-April.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule in its processing facility on the Kennedy Area Heart. After resolving valve issues, the corporate hopes to make one other try and launch an unpiloted check flight to the Worldwide Area Station within the first half of 2022.


John Vollmer, supervisor of Boeing’s business crew program, stated the corporate’s prime of goal with the Starliner is to fly safely, “and I stress safely,” as quickly as potential.

“Every thing we have completed up thus far, and the trail that we’re creating going ahead, goes to allow us to satisfy that objective of getting again to flight safely,” he stated. “We seemed on the choices of easy methods to go ahead and … it is placing us someplace within the first half of 2022.”

As for the price, Vollmer stated “there are not any further costs that will likely be going to the federal government for this.”

“That is one thing the Boeing Firm will be sure that we have got lined as we get this car ready,” he stated. “We’re 100% dedicated to fulfilling our contract with the federal government, and we intend to do this.”

In 2014, SpaceX received a $2.6 billion NASA contract to develop its Crew Dragon spacecraft, whereas Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion to develop the Starliner. The spacecraft have been meant to finish NASA’s post-shuttle reliance on Russia’s Soyuz and return human area launch to U.S. soil.

Boeing initially deliberate two Starliner check flights, one unpiloted and one carrying a crew. Each have been meant to rendezvous and dock with the Worldwide Area Station.

The preliminary uncrewed “Orbital Flight Check 1,” or OFT-1, spacecraft was launched December 20, 2019, however the flight was marred by a critical software program error and communications glitches that blocked the deliberate area station rendezvous. One other error may have induced a catastrophic failure had it not been caught earlier than re-entry.

After an intensive investigation, the software program and communications points have been corrected, a bunch of different upgrades and enhancements have been applied, and Boeing scheduled a second unpiloted check flight, on the firm’s expense, for August 3, 2021.

However throughout a routine pre-launch check of the propulsion system within the Starliner’s service module, telemetry indicated 13 of 19 valves failed to reply as anticipated and the OFT-2 launch was delayed for troubleshooting

Engineers finally coaxed 9 of the 13 valves to open utilizing increased voltages and heaters to unencumber the caught elements, however 4 refused to budge. Boeing then opted to haul the capsule again to its processing facility for extra evaluation.

Inspections revealed traces of corrosion within the valves, showing to verify what engineers suspected early on: moisture, seemingly the results of summertime Florida humidity, by some means labored its means into the valves the place it reacted with nitrogen tetroxide propellant that had seeped throughout inner Teflon seals. The outcome was the formation of nitric acid and corrosion.

The Starliner atop its United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on Aug. 2, the day earlier than valve issues within the capsule’s service module have been confirmed, scrubbing an unpiloted check flight.

United Launch Alliance

Propellant seepage throughout Teflon seals isn’t uncommon and is saved in test by limiting how lengthy the propellant is on board. The Starliner was nicely inside the regular 60-day restrict.

However given excessive humidity, rain and thunderstorms are not any shock in Florida, “everyone asks this query, why did not we all know this earlier than we went to the pad?” Vollmer stated.

“Simply to be clear, … we had cycled these valves many, many instances within the manufacturing unit as we put in them, as we checked them out, as we went by way of the environmental qualification testing. … We had no indication that there was going to be any drawback with these valves.”

And there have been no indicators of bother throughout a launch pad abort check, thruster “sizzling hearth” exams and the OFT-1 mission.

“We actually did not have any indication or motive to consider that these valves wouldn’t cycle,” Vollmer stated.

Poisonous propellants have now been drained from the service module tanks and two valves have been eliminated for cargo to NASA’s Marshall Area Flight Heart in Alabama for computerized tomography scans, disassembly and extra detailed inspections.

Further exams are deliberate at a facility in New Mexico the place engineers will try and duplicate the failure mode utilizing the identical environmental situations current in the course of the precise countdown.

Within the meantime, engineers are creating plans so as to add desiccants to the valves, potential heating components and a extra highly effective dry-air pre-launch purge to stop condensation contained in the service module. The valves despatched to Marshall will likely be changed, however the remainder, all now freely shifting on command, will stay aboard the Starliner’s service module.

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