Boeing seeks redemption as Starliner prepares for another launch effort

Boeing seeks redemption as Starliner prepares for another launch effort

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner is hoisted at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner is hoisted at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Photo: NASA / Frank Miso

Hard to believe, but almost two have passed and one half a year since Boeing’s first failed test of the Starliner CST-100 spacecraft. Yes, a minute has passed, so here is a summary of the last 28 turbulent months, and how Boeing could finally succeed in providing a viable commercial crew vehicle for NASA.

The two previous tests, one in 2019 (Orbital Flight Test-1) and the other last year (Orbital Flight Test-2), did not go well, at least. In the first test, the capsule orbited, but then an error occurred and it never reached the space station. In the second, stuck The valves held the Starliner to the ground. Boeing is developing this capsule under a $ 4.3 billion contract as part of NASA Commercial Crew Program, but is far behind schedule. The pressure is now severe.

In preparation for this second attempt at OFT-2, the Starliner The capsule is currently mounted on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket scheduled to be launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral at 6:54 p.m. EDT on Thursday, May 19. If all goes according to plan, the unmanned CST-100 will land at the International Space Station on Friday. May 20 at 7:10 p.m. EDT. The Starliner OFT-2 is full with about 500 pounds of cargo (mostly food) and the plan is to return 600 pounds cargo back to Earth.

Conceptual view of the Starliner CST-100 in space.

Conceptual view of the Starliner CST-100 in space.
Picture: Boeing

The recent precedent is what it is, this route is not certain. The problems that have plagued this program have ranged from hardware malfunctions and software malfunctions to poor processes and organizational shortcomings. of Boeing deficiencies as a NASA Partner have been fully featured in recent years and have been enhanced by spaceX achievements, The other partner of NASA’s commercial crew. Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon transports astronauts to the ISS and returns them home two years ago.

The launch of Boeing’s OFT-1 mission on December 20, 2019 was an early sign that things were not going well. The capsule managed to reach space, but a software automation error caused the spacecraft to burn up excess fuel, preventing it from reaching its target – the ISS. A subsequent investigation involved a faulty Timer Mission Elapsed, which caused the Starliner and rocket timings to be synchronized. The Starliner miscalculated its position in space, causing unfortunate fuel combustion. The researchers also discovered a coding error that could have led to an insecure service module separation sequence. As if that were itNot enough, space-to-ground communications were lost unexpectedly during the OFT-1 test.

The bad test led to an independent NASA-Boeing review team theme 80 recommendations to Boeing, a long to-do list that included improved testing and modeling, new development requirements, software updates, organizational changes, and operating modifications. Subsequent efforts to address these recommendations resulted in a 1.5-year delay in the Starliner program.

By August 3, 2021, Boeing was ready to complete Starliner’s second test, the OFT-2 mission, but the Atlas V rocket never left the launch pad due to “unexpected valve position indications” in the capsule propulsion system. During the countdown, 13 of the 24 oxidation valves, which “connect-connect in propellers that allow frictional maneuvers and in orbit», Stuck in the closed position, forcing the team to cancel the launch and RETURN the capsule in the Vertical Integration Installation for more careful inspection.

Boeing engineers monitoring the Starliner after a failed launch attempt in August 2021.

Boeing engineers monitoring the Starliner after a failed launch attempt in August 2021.
Photo: Boeing

Engineers it was later found that moisture somehow entered the dry side of the oxidation valves, causing nitric acid to form and that friction from subsequent corrosion caused the valves to stick. Engineers blamed her Florida wet air for thiss unwanted moisture.

In a teleconference for the media on May 3, Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said the issue was “closed” and that OFT-2 was ready to go again. “It was a tough eight months, I would say, but very satisfying as we solved the problem with the oxidizer shut-off valve,” he said.

Michelle Parker, Boeing’s vice president and vice president of space and launch, told reporters that “the spacecraft looks great” and “is performing extremely well.” Boeing engineers were able to reduce the root cause and implement measures to prevent a recurrence, he explained. Parker said the team chose not to redesign the valves but instead added sealant and other components to keep moisture away. “By sealing the path of ambient humidity,” he said, the team hopes to avoid a repeat. “If you remove moisture from the valve, you remove it [chemical] reaction, “he said. The ground team now moves the valves every two days to ensure functionality, Parker added.

Asked if another failed test would cause the NASA-Boeing commercial crew contract to expire, Joel Montalbano, director of NASA’s ISS program, said the space agency would continue to work with Boeing on the project and that there was no intention to stop now. “I suspect we will learn from the test flight” and then “we are going to fly the flight with the crew and after the missions after the certification,” he told reporters.

Indeed, a successful OFT-2 mission would lay the groundwork for the OFT-3 — a Starliner mission with a crew on the ISS. “We understand that we will learn a lot from OFT-2 and this will dictate the program to move forward, but we have a goal [to launch a crewed mission] “at the end of this year,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner mission program director, told a news conference on May 3.

The issue with the valves, it seems, is not over. Boeing is thinking right now the possibility of redesigning the propulsion valves. “A valve redesign is definitely on the table,” Nappi said he said journalists last Wednesday. “Once we get all the information we need, we will make that decision.” And as mentionted at Reuters, Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne are currently arguing over who is to blame for the faulty valves. Aerojet Rocketdyne and its lawyers claim that a cleaning chemical used by Boeing during the ground tests caused the problem, a claim Boeing denies, according to Reuters. Boeing’s recognition of a possible valve redesign and its game of responsibility with the Aerojet Rocketdyne are bad performances shortly before the OFT-2 launch.

A Starliner test launch with a crew later this year would be great, but we better not miss it ourselves. All eyes will be on the Space Launch Complex-41 on May 19, in one of the most anticipated and stressful launches of the year.

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