CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Boeing won’t be ready to launch a re-do demonstration mission of its troubled Starliner capsule until later next year due to ongoing technical investigations, company and NASA officials confirmed during an update Tuesday, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
Teams are still investigating how exactly moisture found its way into the capsule’s service module ahead of a planned launch in August, which combined with oxidizer to make corrosion-causing nitric acid. The process led to 13 of 24 valves in the service module becoming “stuck” and ultimately scrubbed the liftoff atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Significant storms rolled through the Space Coast around the planned launch time, but the investigation so far shows the source of moisture most likely wasn’t rainwater. Instead, Florida humidity may have played a role, New 6 partner Florida Today reported.
“We don’t see any significant leaking,” Michelle Parker, chief engineer at Boeing Space, told reporters Tuesday. “We don’t think it was just pure rain getting into the service module, but we do see some indications of moisture or condensation having been present.”
Parker added that most of the valves have been removed and will be shipped to NASA centers around the country for additional tests, such as CT scans, which use several X-ray images to make cross-sectional views.
Since the launch was scrubbed, teams worked the issue on the pad, in United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility, and are now back at the Starliner factory at Kennedy Space Center. Boeing and NASA officials said Starliner likely won’t be ready to launch until sometime in the first half of 2022.
So far, Boeing has tried twice to reach the International Space Station with its new Starliner capsule. Both of those were uncrewed demonstrations, and one in 2019 actually launched before suffering software glitches and had to be brought back for a premature landing in New Mexico.
Boeing said it’s paying to re-do the failed 2019 mission out of its own pocket to prove the safety of its capsule. It’s expected to cost around $400 million.
Once an uncrewed test flight is successful, astronauts will fly to the ISS on Starliner for one last demonstration before Boeing pushes forward with fully operational missions.
Both Boeing and SpaceX were chosen to develop spacecraft for taking astronauts to the ISS in the wake of the space shuttle program’s cancellation in 2011. So far, the latter company’s Crew Dragon capsule has taken three crewed NASA missions to the ISS and one privately purchased flight to low-Earth orbit.
“This is something The Boeing Company will make sure we’ve got covered,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “We are 100% committed to fulfilling our contract with the government and we intend to do that.”
In the meantime, NASA has opted to shift some Starliner-assigned astronauts over to Crew Dragon. Specifically, Nicole Mann and Joseph Cassada will fly on a SpaceX mission slated for late next year instead.