Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft faces further delay in inaugural crewed mission

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft docked at the space station during an unmanned trial flight.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft at the space station during an unmanned trial flight in 2022.

The initial astronaut launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has been postponed once more.

The Starliner’s inaugural manned flight with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams was set to liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 6, but two hours before launch, engineers detected an issue with a pressure regulation valve on the Atlas V rocket’s upper stage, leading the mission team to pause the countdown.

A rescheduled timetable for the journey to the International Space Station (ISS) had aimed for a launch on May 17, however, NASA announced on Tuesday that the new target is now May 21 due to the necessity for further testing.

NASA clarified that following the successful replacement of the valve on Saturday, a “minor helium leak” was identified on the Starliner’s service module, which its source has been identified.

“NASA and Boeing are devising spacecraft testing and operational solutions to tackle the issue,” the space agency stated in a release on Tuesday. “As part of the testing, Boeing will pressurize the propulsion system for flight as it does before launch, then allow the helium system to release naturally for confirmation of existing data and reinforcement of flight justification.”

The Atlas V and Starliner are currently housed at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Wilmore and Williams, on the other hand, are still in preflight quarantine and returned to Houston on May 10 to reunite with their families while engineers prep the rocket and spacecraft for the upcoming launch next week.

Throughout the eagerly awaited mission, the two astronauts will spend approximately a week on the space station before heading back to Earth with a parachute- and airbag-assisted landing in the southwestern U.S. Following that, NASA will commence the final stages of certifying Starliner and its systems for manned rotation missions to the space station, alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The development of the Starliner has encountered numerous delays over the years. Its initial bid to reach the space station in its inaugural unmanned test flight in 2019 was unsuccessful when the vehicle failed to enter the correct orbit. The mission uncovered a variety of issues with the capsule’s software systems that needed to be resolved prior to its next flight. A second unmanned test flight in 2022 successfully docked with the space station, but several new challenges had to be addressed to ready the Starliner for its first manned flight, which is hopefully on schedule for next week.

Jenifer Yesmin

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