NASA and Boeing have finally revealed the next possible date for an uncrewed test launch of the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station: the first half of 2022.
Starliner’s next Orbital Flight Test-2 mission had been up the air since August, when a technical glitch involving 13 oxidizer valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system failed to open during countdown, forcing the space agency and company officials to cancel their plans. The valves connect to the Starliner’s thrusters, which control abort and in-orbit maneuvering functions.
At that time, NASA said the test would happen after the launch of the Lucy asteroid space probe, which is set to go into space on Saturday, Oct. 16. But Boeing wasn’t so sure it could be carried out this year at all.
In the end, it seems Boeing was right. NASA and Boeing will be analyzing potential flight opportunities for next year alongside United Launch Alliance, the manufacturer behind the Atlas V rocket that will launch the Starliner, and the Eastern Range, the Space Force entity in charge of East Coast launches.
“Potential launch windows for OFT-2 continue to be assessed by NASA, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, and the Eastern Range,” NASA officials wrote in a blog update. “The team currently is working toward opportunities in the first half of 2022 pending hardware readiness, the rocket manifest, and space station availability.”
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NASA said that agency and Boeing officials were continuing to make progress on investigating the oxidizer valve issue. Boeing has found that the most probable cause appears to be related to oxidizer and moisture interactions.
“Boeing has demonstrated success in valve functionality using localized heating and electrical charging techniques,” NASA explained. “Troubleshooting on the pad, at the launch complex, and inside the Starliner production factory at Kennedy Space Center has resulted in movement of all but one of the original stuck valves. That valve has not been moved intentionally to preserve forensics for direct root cause analysis.”
Over the next few weeks, Boeing will carry out spacecraft and component testing to further analyze possible factors that contributed to the valve failure and determine remediation. In addition, it will remove three valves from the spacecraft for further inspection.
The company has identified various paths forward, each depending on the outcome of its tests, to prevent the issue from happening again. These solutions include minor refurbishment of the current service module to using another module already in production, according to NASA’s update.
The Starliner, part of a NASA program that seeks to transport astronauts to the ISS, has only completed one other uncrewed test flight in what seems like ages ago. In 2019, it managed to reach space but didn’t get to the ISS due to a software failure.
Currently, NASA only has two available options to send astronauts to the ISS, Russian spacecraft and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
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