Boeing finds two serious problems with Starliner just weeks before launch – Ars Technica

Boeing finds two serious problems with Starliner just weeks before launch – Ars Technica
Magnify / The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft ejects its heat shield before landing in 2019.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

A Boeing official said Thursday that the company is “standing down” from an attempt to launch the Starliner spacecraft on July 21[ads1] to focus on recently discovered problems with the vehicle.

Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Starliner, said two spacecraft problems were discovered before the Memorial Day weekend and the company used the holiday to investigate them. After internal discussions that included Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun, the company decided to delay the test flight that was to carry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station.

“Safety is always our highest priority and that drives this decision,” Nappi said during a conference call with reporters.

Two matters

The problems seem quite serious, having been discovered weeks before the Starliner was due to launch on an Atlas V rocket. The first involves “soft links” in the lines running from the Starliner to the parachutes. Boeing discovered that these were not as strong as previously thought.

During a normal flight, these substandard connectors would not be a problem. But the Starliner’s parachute system is designed to land a crew safely in the event that one of the three parachutes fails. However, due to the lower failure load limit with these soft links, if one parachute fails, it is possible that the lines between the spacecraft and its remaining two parachutes will break due to the added stress.

The second issue involves P-213 glass cloth tape wrapped around wiring harnesses throughout the vehicle. These cables go everywhere, and Nappi said there are hundreds of feet of these wiring harnesses. The tape is intended to protect the wires from scratches. However, during recent tests, it was discovered that under certain circumstances possible in flight, this tape is flammable.

Unsafe slippage

In 2014, NASA selected two suppliers, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop crew transportation systems for its astronauts to travel to the space station. SpaceX completed its first human flight in 2020 and has since flown nine additional crewed missions. Boeing has flown two unmanned test flights of the Starliner to date and aimed to complete the demonstration flight with astronauts this summer.

Now it is unclear when this “Crew Flight Test” will take place. Nappi said it was “feasible” for the mission to fly in 2023, but he did not want to offer any dates. “I certainly don’t want to commit to any dates or time frames,” he said.

Boeing will spend the next few weeks diving deeper into these issues and identifying a path forward to resolve these and other issues. For example, Nappi also said that as Boeing prepared to load fuel onto the Starliner ahead of the July flight, it found another sticky valve. Valves have been an ongoing problem with the Starliner spacecraft.

Independent review?

Most likely, the Starliner will see another significant delay in this test flight. These new issues are likely to heighten concerns from outside observers about the safety culture at Boeing. Last week, NASA’s Aviation Safety Advisory Panel urged NASA to bring in independent experts to assess the viability of the Starliner.

“Given the number of remaining challenges to the certification of Starliner, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a targeted look at the remaining workload with respect to flying the CFT,” Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, said on May 25. She believes NASA should bring in an independent team, such as from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, “to take a deep look at the elements on the path to shutdown.”

It was for the last problems appeared. Undoubtedly, safety experts will be concerned about how these problems went undetected by Boeing and NASA until the final weeks before the flight.

The Commercial Crew program is funded through a fixed price contract. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award from NASA in 2014, but due to ongoing delays — Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon were originally supposed to fly in 2017 — Boeing has already taken cumulative charges against the $900 million in revenue. Nappi said Thursday that it is too early to say whether these problems will result in additional financial costs to the program.

Questions have been raised about whether Boeing will remain committed to the Starliner program, which is already a loser. The company is contracted to fly six missions for NASA after certification of the Starliner vehicle, which will only happen after the crewed flight test. Boeing has already received much of the $4.2 billion from NASA in milestone awards, so it would presumably have to give some of that money back if it doesn’t fly astronauts for NASA. But the cost of flying those missions could be greater than any funding Boeing would have to pay back to NASA.

Asked if Boeing officials had any discussions about withdrawing from the commercial crew program, Nappy replied, “Not serious discussions about that.”

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