Boeing’s Starliner finally lifts off, but mission control reports more helium leaks

Zoom in / Boeing’s Starliner capsule lifts off from United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

After years of delays, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft finally entered orbit from Florida on Wednesday, sending two veteran NASA astronauts on a long-delayed shakedown mission to the International Space Station.

The Starliner capsule lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:52 a.m. EDT (14:52 UTC). Fifteen minutes later, after removing two strap-on boosters and a core stage powered by a Russian RD-180 engine, the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage launched the Starliner on target to begin a nearly 26-hour search of the space station. Docking at the space station is set for Thursday at 12:15 pm EDT (16:15 UTC), where NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will spend at least a week before returning to Earth.

Shortly after Wednesday’s launch, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Wilmore and Williams, both former U.S. Navy pilots, would “test it from Izzard to Gizzard” to make sure Boeing’s Starliner is ready for a six-month crew rotation that will operate to the ISS.

A long time coming

It’s a big moment for NASA and Boeing. The launch of the Starliner test flight moves NASA closer to having access to two independent commercial spacecraft that will put astronauts into low-Earth orbit, the cornerstone of an initiative the agency began working on a year and a half ago. For Boeing, the first launch of astronauts aboard the Starliner comes as the once-prominent aerospace contractor wrestles with safety concerns over its workhorse 737 jetliner.

In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to complete development of the Starliner spacecraft, with the goal of flying astronauts in the capsule starting in 2017. The company first announced the spacecraft that became the Starliner, later known only as the CST-100. At the 2010 Farnborough International Airshow.

In a 2010 announcement, Boeing officials said they hoped to declare the CST-100 space shuttle operational in 2015, but Congress initially rejected funding, saying NASA wanted a new commercial group to support development of the vehicles after the retirement of the space shuttle. . Later, Boeing ran into several technical issues, resulting in a major fuel spill during a ground test, an ungrounded test flight to the space station in 2019, and further delays due to valve corrosion. Another test flight in 2022 achieved all of Boeing’s key objectives, setting the stage for a crewed test flight.

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But last year, officials discovered that Boeing had misused flammable tape around wire bundles inside the Starliner spacecraft, leading to another schedule slip. Engineers found they needed to redesign a component of the capsule’s parachute system, and the team launched a test flight in 2024. The delays cost Boeing nearly $1.5 billion out of its own coffers. Because NASA’s contract with Boeing was fixed-price, American taxpayers were left with a cost overrun.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, backed by NASA in partnership with Boeing on a commercial team project, will begin flying astronauts in 2020. It has now launched 13 crewed missions for NASA and private customers.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore.
Zoom in / NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore.

Two previous test launch attempts by the Starliner crew on May 6 and June 1 were cut short by a faulty valve on the Atlas V rocket and failure of power to a ground computer on the launch pad. In the time between those two launch attempts, engineers discovered a small but persistent leak of helium from the Starliner’s service module. Helium, which the spacecraft uses to push propellants from internal tanks to the maneuvering propellants, is an inert gas and non-toxic, and managers ultimately concluded that the leak was stable and did not add an unacceptable risk to the mission.

That led to approvals to proceed with the June 1 launch attempt, and then another countdown capped by the successful launch of the Starliner on Wednesday. Milestones achieved early in the flight showed that the spacecraft was performing well.

Wilmore radioed Mission Control in Houston on Wednesday afternoon. It was very exciting.

“It was a bit of a shock that we actually launched,” Williams said. This is the third time two astronauts have been strapped into a Starliner capsule in hopes of launching it into space, following two scrubbed launch attempts in the past month.

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“It was pretty cool jumping off the planet and then realizing the Atlas V was doing its thing,” Williams said. “There were a few bumps here and there, a couple of G.S.”

It was the first time a crew had launched aboard ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which flew its 100th mission on Wednesday. This will be the first time since the final mission of NASA’s Mercury program in 1963 that astronauts will launch on a member of the Atlas rockets.

Hours after launch, Wilmore and Williams each took turns at the controls of the Starliner and conducted a series of demonstrations to show that crew members could manually point and fly if its automation failed. All those checkouts seemed to go well.

“Suni and I have done some manual maneuvers that are even more accurate than the simulator,” Willmore said. “I mean, stopping exactly at the number you want to stop. The accuracy is amazing.”

One spill becomes three

So far, the Starliner test flight has “gone swimmingly,” Willmore said when he spoke to ground controllers Wednesday afternoon. But as the crew prepared for an overnight stay ahead of Jupiter’s docking at the space station, two new helium leaks appeared in the Boeing capsule.

The shuttle’s service module contains most of the Starliner’s propulsion system, including 20 large orbital maneuvering engines and 28 less powerful reaction control system thrusters and small adjustments. Starliner has four doghouse-shaped thrust pods around the perimeter of the service module, with hydrazine fuel, nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, and helium pressurant injected into each thruster pack.

Two helium manifolds feed each doghouse. The leak, which was discovered before Starliner’s launch, was traced to a flange in a port manifold or left side doghouse pod. Late Wednesday, engineers discovered two more helium leaks—one in the port dockhouse and another in the dockhouse on the top side of the service block.

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Brandon Burroughs, a Boeing engineer, described the two new helium leaks as “minor” during a live NASA TV broadcast of the Starliner test flight. These leaks did not appear when fixing a known leak in the floor.

Boeing engineers estimate two out of four helium leaks "dog house" Propulsion pods in the service module of the Starliner shuttle.
Zoom in / Boeing engineers are evaluating helium leaks in two of the four “doghouse” propulsion pods in the Starliner shuttle’s service module.

With the discovery, three of Starliner’s eight helium manifolds now show signs of leaking, and mission controllers said they would receive an update on the situation after the crew woke up at 4:30 a.m. EDT (08:30 UTC) Thursday. It was not immediately clear how significant the leaks might be or the immediate implications for the spacecraft’s planned arrival at the space station.

“It looks like we’ve picked up two more helium leaks,” said Neil Negata, the spacecraft communications engineer, or CAPCOM, in mission control. “We’re ready to find out what you mean by taking another helium. Leak, so give it to us,” Willmore radioed to the ground after a few moments.

Negata told Wilmore that they would isolate newly discovered manifolds that were leaking helium, while manifolds known to leak before launch would remain open. “This will give teams the ability to manage the spacecraft,” Burrows said.

Before it was comfortable to launch with a known helium leak, engineers determined that the Starliner spacecraft could handle four more helium leaks, even if the existing leak worsened, according to Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial group program manager.

“It’s a tough system,” Stich told reporters last month. “It’s a high-pressure system, and helium is a very small, tiny molecule, and it leaks.”

Two helium manifolds will be shut down and in its current configuration, six of the spacecraft’s 28 reaction control system thrusters will be disabled. The capsule has the ability to operate on a subset of its thrusters, and Boeing engineers believe “the helium system is safe for the flight,” Burroughs said.

“This is not unexpected and we plan for such cases,” he said. “The team will work to ensure we are in a good configuration to complete our mission to connect and rendezvous with the ISS.”

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