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NASA set to launch manned Boeing Starliner mission to dock with space station

lizkat

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It's taken "awhile" for Boeing to get its critter to this point (only seven years behind schedule) but the first test of a crewed flight of the vehicle is finally set to launch tonight at 10:34pm EDT, Destination is a dock at the International Space Station. The NASA live coverage starts 6:30pm.




 
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Update - the planned NASA launch of Starliner has been stood down for tonight due to an anomaly with an oxygen relief valve. Crew will exit the craft due to this scrub and they hope to reschedule launch for tomorrow.
 
Earliest date for another launch attempt for the Boeing Starliner is Friday, May 10th. May be next week instead.


So the problem was with the rocket, not the spacecraft itself, but they're taking time to know more about the fault in the oxygen relief valve and may decide to replace it.

If the valve needs to be replaced, the launch could be pushed into next week.

Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that operates the rocket that was to send the Starliner capsule into orbit, said the valve that malfunctioned regulates pressure inside a liquid oxygen tank on the rocket’s second stage. It helps keep the flow of propellants into the stage’s two engines as well as maintain the structural integrity of the tank.

The valve was “buzzing,” Bruno said, opening and closing at a fast rate. Engineers were trying to determine how much energy the valve had expended while doing so.
 
Update: On May 17, NASA moved the earliest projected launch date again, from May 21 to Saturday May 25.


NASA, Boeing, and ULA (United Launch Alliance) teams will take additional time to work through spacecraft closeout processes and flight rationale before proceeding with the launch of the agency’s Boeing Crew Flight Test. The teams now are targeting a launch no earlier than 3:09 p.m. EDT Saturday, May 25, for the flight test carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the International Space Station.

Apparently the delay is still centered on assuring that the identified and resolved small helium leak (a valve malfunction in the service module, not the crew module) that was detected and resolved earlier has adequate redundancy and backup capabilities in flight.
 
Delayed again, I hear, no new earliest projected launch date mentioned. May 25th allegedly no longer targeted.

Darn helium leak.
 
Delayed again, I hear, no new earliest projected launch date mentioned. May 25th allegedly no longer targeted.

Darn helium leak.

Yeah, right? This doesn't sound like it's just about the helium.


“The team has been in meetings for two consecutive days, assessing flight rationale, system performance, and redundancy,” NASA said in a statement. “There is still forward work in these areas, and the next possible launch opportunity is still being discussed.”

The term "flight rationale" sure sounds way broader than "are we good to go on the helium thing?"

There is nothing like the combination of a new CEO at a troubled Boeing, plus NASA's dark memories of "all the little things" that can go wrong with even a spacecraft that has flown many (or, zero) crewed missions before.

Anyone who thinks this delay has ONLY been because of a buzzy valve (already replaced) in one of the helium thrusters must not have read the official reports (or ensuing books) about the likes of the fatal Challenger and Columbia flights, not to mention the fatal Apollo I fire on the launchpad.

No one wants to be responsible for shrugging off the slightest little glitch or departure from norms in the countdowns. "Been there, done that" and suffering the consequences is enough to keep that thing on the ground until a free-will sign-off of "best effort, let's go" finally occurs.

Even then the principals know that the test flight is not without a long list of "tolerable" risks. When there are multiple delays in a launch, for whatever reason, the conflict grows over a desire to get on with it and a desire to look one more time at everything previously checked off as possible, unlikely, and "tolerable".
 
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I think we can be forgiven for being skeptical of Boeing's quality control, given their problems with airplanes over the last few years. Hey, I'm all for seeing Starliner become successful, but like you I'm old enough to remember having watched Challenger and Columbia blow up or burn on re-entry.
 
One can begin to wonder about NASA's rationale for continuing the original plan, which was for the USA to have redundant (not identical) and commercially competitive sources of crewed space transport, and so to be able to participate in international or unilateral ventures without having to rely on rides for US nationals from co-operators with whose politics we might find ourselves at odds.

The idea was also that we'd not be without recourse if some systemic design flaw grounded our spacecraft for an extended timeframe. And, at least in theory, over time, having two commercial US options would drive down costs and prices.

But as it stands now, Starliner is seven years behind schedule and more than a billion bucks over budget... and SpaceX has meanwhile shipped and returned more than 50 astronauts on missions, and its Dragon spacecraft has evolved to launches of two variants of Dragon 2, one crewed and one for cargo only.

All this may make it at least politically harder to justify even the maiden crewed flight of the Boeing design, when the SpaceX experience of its original product has already provided enough info to underpin development and successful use of two variants of a second-gen model.

I'm not saying NASA is rethinking its intention to have redundant resources for crewed missions. I'm jes' sayin'.
 
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