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Boeing's Starliner sees August launch slipping away after more valve trouble

Boeing's Starliner Capsule Sits Atop The ULA Atlas V Rocket On A Launchpad In Florida At Night
(Image credit: ULA)

Boeing's Starliner is still grounded as engineers struggle to root out an issue with propulsion valves that is threatening to push the critical Orbital Test Flight-2 (OTF-2) into September.

NASA, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing – are working to correct a valve malfunction that occurred during the lead up to Starliner's August 3 OTF-2 launch. 

Engineers worked "to restore functionality to several valves in the Starliner propulsion system that did not open as designed during the launch countdown for the Aug. 3 launch attempt. The valves connect to thrusters that enable abort and in-orbit maneuvering," according to a NASA blog post.

In ULA's Vertical Integration Facility (VIF), close to Space Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, engineers have been able to power on the Starliner capsule, allowing it to receive commands to help troubleshoot the issue that has kept the capsule grounded for the past week.

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Seven of 13 valves that stayed shut when they should have opened during a pre-launch test have now been opened by engineers, but they have yet to track down what is keeping them closed. Boeing has been able to rule out external physical or chemical damage or corrosion to the affected valves.

NASA said that the Starliner will remain in the VIF until engineers have been able to isolate the root problem, correct the issue, and verify "repeatable system performance."

NASA, Boeing, and ULA are looking at the calendar to determine any remaining launch windows in August that Boeing and ULA could realistically hit. "If all valve functionality can be restored and root cause identified," NASA said, "NASA will work with Boeing to determine a path to flight for the important uncrewed mission to the [International Space Station (ISS)]."

Engineers Work To Diagnose A Valve Malfunction On The Boeing Starliner In August 2021

(Image credit: ULA)

This is Boeing's second attempt to get its Starliner capsule docked with the ISS after the first attempt made it into orbit, but an automation malfunction kept the capsule from even approaching the ISS. Boeing rival SpaceX, meanwhile, has already flown human crew members to the ISS and returned them to Earth, after having successfully docked its uncrewed test flight back in March 2019.

It's hard to understate the importance of this flight for Boeing. SpaceX is gaining a significant lead over legacy contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, so much so that it is seriously cutting into their historically steady revenue from the government and other major commercial and industrial players.

Like it or not, it's not just about pride and ego for Boeing anymore. If SpaceX continues to perform as well as it has while Boeing struggles on an early uncrewed test flight for a capsule that is supposed to eventually carry people to the ISS, and who knows when that might happen at this point, Boeing and ULA might find that their lucrative government contracts are lighter and lighter with every successful SpaceX launch.

John Loeffler

John (He / Him / His) is a writer, programmer, gamer, activist, and Brooklyn College alum currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Named a CES 2020 Media Trailblazer for his science and technology reporting, John specializes in all areas of computer science, including industry news, hardware reviews, PC gaming, general science writing, and the social impact of of the tech industry. John is currently finishing up an M.A. in Computer Science.    


Find him online on Twitter at @thisdotjohn


Currently playing: Valheim, Darkest Dungeon, Satisfactory