It’s not the warmth, it’s the humidity that grounded Boeing’s Starliner

Patrick
Enlarge / The Boeing Starliner spacecraft to be flown on Orbital Flight Check-2 is seen at NASA’s Kennedy Area Heart in Florida on June 2, 2021.

NASA

NASA and Boeing officers stated Tuesday that they’ve efficiently eliminated two valves from the Starliner spacecraft and have shipped them to Marshall Area Flight Heart in Alabama for additional evaluation.

The forensic examination—the 2 valves shall be inspected with quite a lot of methods, together with a CT scan—is a part of Boeing’s ongoing effort to diagnose the “caught” valve problem that brought about an abort of Starliner’s uncrewed take a look at flight on August 3. With lower than 5 hours remaining within the countdown to launch, throughout a routine process, 13 of the 24 valves that management the stream of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer via the service module of the spacecraft wouldn’t cycle between closed and open.

An preliminary diagnostic effort on the launch pad yielded no outcomes, so the Atlas V rocket and spacecraft had been rolled again to an integration facility. After extra inspection and testing there, engineers determined to “de-stack” the spacecraft and return it to Boeing’s spacecraft processing constructing at Kennedy Area Heart. This finally led to additional dissection of the automobile and elimination of a number of valves.

Corrosive humidity

Boeing’s chief engineer for house and launch, Michelle Parker, stated throughout a information convention with reporters Tuesday that the corporate has a reasonably stable speculation for what went unsuitable. Sooner or later in the course of the 46-day interval when the automobile was fueled—and when the valves had been discovered to be caught—humidity will need to have gotten into the spacecraft. This moisture mixed with the oxidizer and created nitric acid, starting the method of corrosion.

Parker stated dew factors on the launch website had been excessive in August, and whereas the automobile was designed to function in Florida’s humidity, there’s bodily proof that humidity is nonetheless the perpetrator. Boeing and NASA engineers now need to attempt to recreate the corrosive response in comparable take a look at situations in order that they are often assured of the basis trigger and any countermeasures they implement.

The corporate and NASA will press forward with work in Florida, Alabama, and at Boeing’s take a look at website in White Sands, New Mexico. All of it will take time, acknowledged Boeing’s program supervisor for industrial crew, John Vollmer. He stated Boeing is now focusing on the “first half” of 2022 for the uncrewed take a look at flight of Starliner. (One supply advised Ars the “no sooner than” date is Might 2022).

This mission is formally named Orbital Flight Check-2, or OFT-2. The corporate is flying OFT-2 at its personal expense, $410 million, following an uncrewed Starliner mission in December 2019 that went awry on account of software program points. The corporate’s technicians and engineers labored lengthy and onerous after the OFT-1 flight to repair the software program, solely to have these new {hardware} issues crop up throughout launch-day checks on the pad in early August.

NASA is hoping that Boeing can get Starliner up and flying in order that it could have a second launch system, alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon automobile, to get its astronauts to and from the Worldwide Area Station. Assuming that Boeing safely completes OFT-2, Vollmer stated the corporate and NASA wish to have about six months to evaluation information and put together for a crewed take a look at flight. That will put the earliest doable launch date for Starliner’s first mission carrying astronauts towards the tip of 2022. Extra realistically, the mission might not fly till early 2023.

After this flight, NASA will certify that Starliner is prepared for normal, operational astronaut flights.

Shopping for extra Dragons

As a part of its industrial crew program, NASA ordered six “post-certification” missions from SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX efficiently accomplished its demonstration crewed mission in 2020 and is about to launch its third licensed crew mission, Crew-3, to the Worldwide Area Station on October 31. A fourth and fifth mission are scheduled to comply with in 2022.

Throughout Tuesday’s information convention, NASA’s industrial crew program supervisor, Steve Stich, stated the company is negotiating extra flights for SpaceX—and presumably Boeing. He stated particulars about these contract extensions might be introduced inside the subsequent few months. Given the problems mentioned Tuesday, It now appears doable that SpaceX might full its preliminary six-mission contract earlier than Boeing flies its first licensed mission. However Stich is assured that Boeing will get there.

“I’ve no motive to consider that Boeing received’t achieve success in getting Starliner operational,” Stich stated. “We’ll get this downside solved, after which we’ll have two house transportation techniques like we wish.”

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