Boeing Starliner OFT-2 launch update: what’s at stake

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying a Boeing Starliner spacecraft rolls out to the launch pad for the OFT-2 mission, scheduled for launch on May 19, 2022.

Joel Kowsky | NASA

Boeing is about to make another attempt to get to the International Space Station with its Starliner. withapsule on Thursday, nearly 2.5 years after the company’s first mission failed.

Boeing is developing its Starliner spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, having won nearly $5 billion in contracts to build the capsule. The company competes in the program with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has completed development of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and is now on its fourth human spaceflight for NASA.

The development of the Boeing Starliner has faced a number of hurdles over the past three years.

Its first unmanned mission in December 2019, called the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), ended prematurely after a software glitch caused the capsule to enter the wrong orbit. NASA noted earlier this year, after investigating the issue, that Boeing’s software development “was an area where we may not have had as much understanding and oversight as we should have.”

Boeing attempted to launch a second orbital test flight, or OFT-2, in August, but the company discovered a propulsion valve problem while the spacecraft was still on the ground. Thirteen of the 24 oxidizer valves that control the Starliner’s propulsion in space jammed after moisture on the launch pad caused corrosion and the spacecraft’s service module was replaced.

Boeing has now applied sealant to the valves and plans to make another OFT-2 launch attempt on Thursday at 6:54 pm ET.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket will carry the Starliner into orbit as it begins its 24-hour flight before docking with the ISS. The mission is expected to last a total of several days before the capsule returns to Earth.

The US Space Force 45th Weather Squadron predicts launch conditions are likely to be clear, with the possibility of disruption due to scattered thunderstorms around Cape Canaveral in Florida. The backup launch time is scheduled for Friday, but the weather is predicted to worsen that day.

Boeing’s decisive test

The Launch Complex-41 crew access knob is rotated into position for the Boeing Starliner spacecraft ahead of the launch of the OFT-2 mission, scheduled for May 19, 2022.

Joel Kowsky | NASA

The aerospace giant was once thought to be on par with SpaceX in the race to launch NASA astronauts. However, the delays in the development of the Starliner are steadily setting Boeing back both scheduling and financially.

Due to the fixed price of the contract with NASA, Boeing assumed the cost of additional work on the capsule, the company has spent $595 million so far.

NASA last year took a rare move to transition astronauts from Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The space agency also announced last year that it intends to acquire three more manned flights from SpaceX, allowing Musk’s company to potentially complete its original contract with NASA for six flights before Starliner completes its first.

If Thursday’s OFT-2 launch is successful, Boeing will then prepare for a crewed flight test that will see the first astronauts fly the Starliner.

Boeing vice president Mark Nappi said at a pre-launch press conference that the company “could potentially be ready” for crewed flight “by the end of this year.” However, the company is looking into whether to reverse-engineer Aerojet Rocketdyne-made valves on the Starliner, which could further delay it.

NASA Commercial Crew Manager Steve Stich said the agency doesn’t consider the Starliner valve upgrade “a big deal in terms of certification.” Stitch noted that NASA will be working with Boeing to “figure out what kind of testing needs to be done” in the event of a redesign, but the timetable has not yet been determined “how long it will take.”

“Personally, I would like Starliner to fly past 2030. I would like Dragon to fly beyond 2030. NASA has invested heavily in both of these vehicles, and they are excellent platforms for getting into low Earth orbit,” Stich said.

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