While Boeing has managed to hold a strong position in the aviation industry, the company hasn't been as successful in private aerospace - or any space endeavors for that matter.
But in 2022, the company plans to make a move with its Starliner vehicle.
All Systems Go. For Real This Time
Earlier this month, Boeing's top officials and NASA published a blog post confirming they are looking to launch the Starliner aircraft in May 2022. The date remains tentative but should stand as long as everything runs smoothly.
After an earlier failed Starliner launch attempt, Boeing and NASA have spent the past few months determining what went wrong and how to address the issues. According to the recent blog post, they've made some significant progress.
Speaking on the progress made so far, Steve Stich, the Commercial Crew Program Manager at NASA, explained:
"NASA has been working side-by-side with Boeing on the service module valve investigation, including leveraging the agency's materials and propellants expertise to better characterize the potential causes of the issue."
Currently, NASA is planning a second orbital test flight. The mission - dubbed OFT-2 - is Boeing's top aerospace priority for the coming year. Starliner is set to launch on an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (ULA), and NASA is shooting to take it all the way to the International Space Station.
The Starliner's Checkered History
Starliner's first launch came in December 2019, with the craft eventually failing to get to the International Space Station due to anomalies in onboarding and flight software.
According to reports, Starliner suffered an issue with its launch sequence. The rocket could not effectively fire its main engines, leading to its capsule entering the wrong orbit. Engineers landed the vehicle early and docked it as a failed launch attempt.
Back on Earth, additional issues were found. NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) confirmed the vehicle suffered a second software glitch while in orbit, this one causing thrusters to fire unnecessarily during descent. A potentially dangerous issue that caused erratic flight could have led to impact with other vessels on the way down.
After the initial failure, Boeing and NASA engineers worked to resolve issues and ensure Starliner could safely ferry astronauts to and from the space station. The duo tried again in August 2021 - without success.
In a statement, Boeing engineers explained they had discovered several misplaced valves during testing. Boeing pinned the blame on the electrical storms surrounding Kennedy Space Center the day prior to launch.
Unable to fix the issues, Boeing postponed the second launch indefinitely.
"Engineers have ruled out a number of potential causes, including software," Boeing explained. "Additional time is needed to complete the assessment and, as a result, NASA and Boeing are not proceeding with Wednesday's backup launch opportunity."
Boeing added they didn't have a timeline for remediation. Now, it looks like things are set to go.
A Lot On The Line For Boeing
Following extensive tests, NASA and Boeing fixed nine of 13 troublesome valves. Boeing explained the problem stemmed from moisture interacting with the valves' oxidizer. The resulting corrosion sealed the valves shut.
NASA pointed out they've taken steps to prevent this issue from happening again, giving them enough confidence for a launch attempt in May 2022.
Engineers will change Starliner's entire service module to ensure the vehicle's readiness. They will now use the service module initially planned for the vehicle's Crew Flight Test (CFT) - Starliner's first test flight with astronauts on board.
Starliner's successful launch is critical for Boeing. The company has repeatedly failed to meet competitors in the aerospace business like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
With numerous other upstart companies making progress and building momentum, Boeing needs a win to stay in the conversation. Hopefully, Starliner's May 2022 voyage goes off without a hitch.