For Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA certainly hopes the second time’s the charm. But the agency will have to wait a little longer.
A launch of the orbital capsule, scheduled for 1:20 p.m. Eastern time, was postponed on Tuesday morning. A Boeing statement said its engineers detected “unexpected valve position indications in the propulsion system.” Later in the day, the company said in a second statement that it had “ruled out software as a cause.” That could indicate something is wrong with the valve hardware, and that might take longer to fix.
The Boeing statement added that it would not proceed with the next scheduled launch window on Wednesday as it needed additional time to assess the issue.
Boeing is one of two companies that NASA has hired to take its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (SpaceX is the other, with its Crew Dragon spacecraft.)
Two years ago, Boeing appeared to be on track to be the first to be ready to put astronauts on board.
About all that remained was a demonstration flight with no astronauts on board, which launched in December 2019. Embarrassingly, things went wrong almost immediately, exposing flawed software, and calling to mind problems that Boeing’s aviation division had with the 737 Max jet, which led to a pair of fatal crashes.
Not only was Starliner not ready for astronauts, but it took Boeing more than a year to analyze what went wrong, rewrite its software and validate that the spacecraft would be trustworthy.
Why was the launch delayed last week?
This is actually the second delay in a week: Starliner was scheduled to launch on Friday. But then events in orbit around Earth intervened.
Russia had launched a new space station module, Nauka, which successfully docked Thursday morning. But then Nauka’s thrusters inadvertently started firing again, pushing the International Space Station into a spin, revolving around one and a half times before controllers got it back under control after about an hour.
The space station appears to have survived no worse for wear from its unplanned gymnastics routine, but NASA managers wanted to take time to make sure. Because of classified military operations at Cape Canaveral over the weekend, the next launch opportunity was Tuesday afternoon.
What will happen during the flight to the space station?
When it does liftoff, the spacecraft will spend about 24 hours in orbit before it arrives at the space station and docks.
Among the goals of this demonstration flight are verification of the power, navigation and communications systems. But the biggest objective is to test the docking system, which remained untested during the first flight.
Although there will not be astronauts aboard, the capsule will not be empty. In the commander’s seat will be Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin outfitted with 15 sensors to collect data on the conditions people will experience during the flight. Rosie was aboard during the first Starliner trip.
The capsule is also carrying 400 pounds of cargo and supplies to the space station.
Starliner is to remain docked at the space station for five to 10 days before returning to Earth, landing with parachutes and a large airbag in the desert in the western United States (a contrast to SpaceX’s capsule, which lands in the sea off Florida).