Starliner’s delayed earnings reflect higher stakes in Boeing and NASA

Ahead of Boeing’s first manned flight aboard its Starliner spacecraft earlier this month, the company and NASA have repeatedly said that the rigorous test program followed years of delays and costly setbacks. Finally the astronauts were ready to fly.

They warned that it was a test flight Getting to and from the International Space Station, things may not go well.

It didn’t go well.

Instead of coming home about eight days later, the shuttle docked at the station, delayed indefinitely while crews fixed a series of problems — helium leaks and some thrusters that stopped working at a critical moment in flight — the capsule’s propulsion system.

While the top priority is ensuring the safe return of NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Willmore to Earth, technical delays and whether Boeing can overcome them only reflect the high stakes for the future of the Starliner program. The future in space. Boeing must prove it can fly astronauts safely, and overcome technical challenges that have plagued the space shuttle — as well as the company’s commercial aircraft division.

When the mission is complete, NASA and Boeing must A rigorous process is required to certify the Starliner for routine crew rotation missions with a full crew of four astronauts, usually for a six-month stay on the station. Only then will it be possible The Starliner joins SpaceX’s Dragon, which first flew astronauts to NASA in 2020, and a $4.2 billion contract awarded by NASA to Boeing a decade ago.

NASA is keen to have Boeing’s Starliner serve as America’s second transport system to the space station. SpaceX has been performing that function alone since 2020, but NASA says it needs two systems if one fails.

Years of setbacks, including an unmanned test flight in 2019, have cost Boeing about $1.5 billion. Starliner is required to operate regular crew rotation flights so that missions can be paid for.

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“I have a lot of faith that they’re going to look at it very hard, and they’re not going to put a spacecraft in orbit that’s unsafe,” said former NASA space shuttle program director Wayne Hale. Director for 40 shuttle flights. “For Boeing and SpaceX, they make their money after they’re certified. They’re revenue planes. They want to recoup their development costs and actually make a profit from the exercise. So it’s important.”

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Starliner developed small helium leaks that confused NASA and Boeing and led to several delays in getting off the ground and back home. At first, the groups said they thought the leaks were due to poor sealing, but later said they didn’t know what was behind it. As the shuttle approached the space station on June 6, they were trying to figure out why the shuttle’s five small thrusters suddenly stopped working, forcing NASA to return the vehicle to Boeing and turn on the thrusters to bring them back online.

Initially, the Starliner was supposed to arrive home on June 18; Then NASA pushed it back to June 26. The space agency delayed it again on Friday, then to sometime in July, saying teams needed more time to study propulsion system problems.

No rush to fly astronauts home, NASA says; It said the helium leaks did not pose a risk of recovery. Officials said four of the five thrusters are now functioning normally, and since the spacecraft is outfitted with 28 thrusters, redundancy is plentiful. The spacecraft can stay in space for up to 45 days, giving crew members a little breathing room to continue troubleshooting.

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NASA and Boeing have repeatedly insisted that Starliner is healthy and can be used at any time to return astronauts to Earth in the event of an emergency at the space station.

“We’re taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Business Team program. In a statement. “The small helium system leaks we observed during rendezvous and docking allow us to drive the data in terms of managing thruster performance.”

Officials said that being able to resolve the thruster problem and the helium leak will play a key role in that certification review.

“We have to address helium leaks,” Stich said during a media briefing last week. “We’re not going to go through another trip like this with helium leaks.” Teams need to figure out “what causes the motivators to be less motivated.” “So we have some work to do after this flight.”

However, the certification process is not currently a major concern of the agency. For now, “the entire team is focused on understanding what’s going on with this vehicle for flight testing and our plan for the return. So we don’t expect much,” Stich said. “Later this summer, once this vehicle is back with the crew, we’ll have all the work ahead of us to figure out what the path forward is.”

In preparation for that work, Boeing and NASA want to collect as much data as possible on the systems. Already, Boeing has tested the thrusters while docked to the space station. Boeing and NASA are working with simulators on the ground to test various scenarios to try to pinpoint the source of problems and ensure the vehicle is safe.

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Hale said the certification process was a “difficult review.” “These two issues clearly need to be resolved” before NASA allows a full crew of Boeing astronauts to fly. He added, “Propulsion failures and helium leaks are something we’ve dealt with all the time in the shuttle program. They’re very common.”

Safety is paramount, and the tragedy of space shuttle Columbia’s return from orbit in 2003 is always on people’s minds, he said. “Those lessons are not forgotten,” he said.

Complicating matters is the fact that the helium and thruster problems are located within the Starliner’s service module, which provides most of the spacecraft’s mechanical power. It burns up in the atmosphere before returning to Earth. Engineers are eager to find problems while the hardware is still accessible. This, Stich said, will allow them to gain “valuable insight into the system upgrades we want to make for post-certification work.”

“Since the service module isn’t coming back, they need to get all the data they can out of it now,” said Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University. “You have to be in orbit as much as possible to get that data.”

Williams and Wilmore are excited to stay in orbit, especially since Williams was last in space in 2012, Wilmore in 2015.

“Having more time in space is a big deal,” he said. “I want to be there. They were both waiting on that plane. Why rush it?”

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