For a long time, Boeing has been one of the shining stars of the aviation industry. The company is one of the duopolists when it comes to designing airplanes, and its position in the industry has never been in doubt.
But, the company’s move to aeronautics and aerospace hasn’t been so fruitful. Boeing remains locked in its mission to make spaceships and compete with some of the industry’s private companies. But, its efforts remain well short of the mark.
Starliner’s TImeline of Failure Continues
The latest setback for Boeing came earlier this month, with the company announcing that it had put a hold on the project indefinitely due to technical problems. On August 13, NASA and Boeing released a statement confirming that the Starliner mission will be postponed as technical issues have continued to follow it.
Starliner is Boeing’s entry for a reusable rocket - something that is all the rage now, with companies building innovative and economical space vehicles. The test for last week was supposed to happen with no crew, taking Starliner to the International Space Station. Amongst other things, Boeing was looking to test the vehicle’s clean docking procedure. Starliner would have stayed at the Space Station for about ten days before coming back to the Earth.
The Starliner launch would have been Boeing’s first try since December 2019. At the time, Boeing had still been involved in the controversy of its failing 737 Max line of aircraft. The company was looking towards the Starliner launch as an opportunity to mend fences and build its reputation again.
But, Starliner failed. It suffered a software glitch in its launch sequence, and it was unable to fire up its main engines accurately. This led to the capsule getting into the wrong orbit as a consequence. Unable to make it to the International Space Station, Starliner had to land early.
At least the landing was successful- or so everyone thought.
Months later, it was discovered that the vehicle had suffered a second software glitch while it was in orbit. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) explained that the gitch would have caused Starliner’s thrusters to misfire unnecessarily as it came back to the Earth. With the sequence leading to uneven movement, Starliner would have bumped into another piece of equipment on its descent.
Hardware or Software Issues This Time?
After over a year of do-overs, Boeing was finally set to get the Starliner launch right. All systems were set for last Tuesday to see the glorious flight.
But, during their routine checks, engineers noticed that some of the valves in the vehicle's propulsion system had been out of place. Boeing pointed out that the issue had been noticed following electrical storms that ravaged the region around the Kennedy Space Center the previous day.
Starliner had been planned to launch on an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance last Tuesday. But, the engineers spent the entirety of the day investigating the problem. With the issue being more extensive than they thought, Boeing decided to roll the rocket back into its integration tower for additional inspections.
So far, Boeing has remained steadfast in its belief that the valve issue is due to a software fault. Instead, the company claims that there are irregularities in its vehicle’s hardware.
“Engineers have ruled out a number of potential causes, including software. Additional time is needed to complete the assessment and, as a result, NASA and Boeing are not proceeding with Wednesday’s backup launch opportunity,” the statement pointed out.
The Work to Remediate Will Take Time
Given the importance of the valves, it will be impossible for Boeing to continue with the launch without them. The company also doesn’t have a timeline for remediation at the moment. However, they are working with a tentative objective of getting the spacecraft in good shape to fly this week.
In a briefing, Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said:
"These valves are important because they isolate the thrusters from the propellant tanks, and they need to be open for flight in order to have the appropriate thrusters for aborts and on orbit maneuvering for the vehicle."
So far, a lot of work has been done to fix this issue. Reports suggest that the engineers have been able to open nine of the 13 valves that were affected. But, it’s still not enough until all valves are open. The spacecraft won’t be able to get off the ground.
The vice president and Program Manager at Boeing's Commercial Crew Program, John Vollmer, said that the launch will most likely not happen this month. This isn’t due to lack of trying, but more because Boeing hopes to get a safer and more effective vehicle when Starliner eventually launches. There will be a lot of time and effort to ensure that Starliner is solid, which involves time-consuming, painstaking work.
For now, Starliner will go back to its manufacturer's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center for troubleshooting.