NASA and Boeing provided an update on the beleaguered Starliner capsule Tuesday, confirming that the earliest the spacecraft will fly will be sometime during the first half of next year. Starliner was grounded in August, after an issue with the oxidizer valves was discovered roughly four and a half hours before launch.
The launch was part of an uncrewed test flight, dubbed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), the second for Starliner. Since the issue was discovered, Boeing has still been unable to identify the root cause of why 13 of the 24 valves in the propulsion system remained stuck in the closed position during routine pre-mission activities.
Two valves have been removed from the spacecraft and sent to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where they will be disassembled and examined for further investigation, Michelle Parker, Boeing’s chief engineer of space and launch, said during a media briefing Tuesday.
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX each contracts for six round-trip crewed missions to the International Space Station under its Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The agency is going through both contracts to potentially add even more flights to each company’s roster, particularly in light of the likely extension of the operational life of the ISS past 2024, Steve Stich, NASA’s manager of CCP, said in the media briefing. The eventual schedule could see each company ferrying astronauts to and from the station once a year.
NASA maintains “every confidence that Boeing will be flying crew soon,” Stich said. “We’ll get this problem solved and then we’ll have two space transportation systems like we want, with Boeing and SpaceX both flying [ … ] I have no reason to believe Boeing won’t be successful.”
Even once Boeing gets Starliner back to the launch pad, Boeing’s CCP program manager John Vollmer estimated it would be around six months between a successful OFT-2 and a crewed mission. He added that the cost of the valve investigation and launch delay will be borne by Boeing, not NASA.
This is the second launch attempt for Starliner, after OFT-1 failed to enter the target orbit in a 2019 launch due to a software issue. SpaceX, the other contractor selected under NASA’s CCP, has flown three crewed missions with its Crew Dragon capsule and will conduct a fourth on Halloween.