December 3, 2022

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Boeing's third launch attempt approaches the trapped Starliner space

Boeing’s third launch attempt approaches the trapped Starliner space

On Thursday, Boeing Space Company is set to conduct a crucial test flight of its new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner — a mission that will launch the gumdrop-shaped capsule to the International Space Station without any people on board. It’s a journey that Boeing desperately needs to go well after a long journey to the launch pad marked by many failures, false starts and long delays.

Starliner, at its core, is a space taxi. Designed to carry up to seven passengers, the capsule is intended to be launched into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket, then automatically dock with the International Space Station, or ISS, and eventually land on Earth again under an array of parachutes. Once operational, Starliner will essentially transport NASA astronauts to and from the station to help keep the International Space Station crew on track. But before NASA gets comfortable putting people on board, the agency wants Starliner to demonstrate it can safely perform all major milestones of a human spaceflight mission.

Proving this has turned out to be a struggle for Boeing over the past three years. In fact, this upcoming Starliner launch is a reboot. Boeing first attempted to launch an uncrewed Starliner in 2019, but the spacecraft never made it to the space station as intended. At NASA’s request, the company agreed to give the test flight another chance, with a relaunch planned for the summer of last year. But after the Starliner was put on the launch pad, Boeing ended up returning the spacecraft to the factory to fix some valves that weren’t working properly. It’s been nearly a year since this downturn occurred, and the delays are cumulative Boeing costs an additional $595 million.

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Now, Boeing is preparing to try again, and the company is hoping that a third time will be magic. “The Boeing team is ready and ready,” said Mark Naby, Boeing’s commercial crew program manager, during a pre-flight press conference. “The partnership between NASA and Boeing is really strong, and it’s a reflection of all the hard work that’s been done.”

The truth is that Boeing’s relations with NASA have slowly eroded during the development of the Starliner, and a failure in this flight test could put this partnership at greater risk. In addition, if Boeing is not successful, NASA may be left with only one launch provider – SpaceX – to transport humans to and from the International Space Station.

first try

Boeing was working on a Starliner Since 2014 When NASA selected the company, along with SpaceX, to develop space capsules that could transport astronauts to and from the space station. The two companies are in the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which aims to make private companies — not the government — responsible for getting people into low Earth orbit. At that time, Boeing received an initial development contract worth $4.2 billion, while SpaceX received a contract worth $2.6 billion.

Those awarded contracts sparked a competition between SpaceX and Boeing to see which company could launch humans to the International Space Station first. Throughout development, both SpaceX and Boeing looked neck and neck, with Boeing expected to be a bit ahead. The company has been a favorite from the start, as it has been a longtime contractor to the space agency. Boeing is the prime contractor for the International Space Station and is currently building NASA’s next generation rocket, the Space Launch System.

But for Boeing, the Commercial Crew Program was a new way of doing business with NASA. Boeing has often worked with the space agency through cost-plus contracts: agreements in which the company receives funding from the agency to cover all development costs. Once development is over, NASA owns the vehicle. With Commercial Crew, the contracts were at a fixed price. NASA gave the companies a lump sum, and the companies had to cover any development costs beyond the initial price. Along the way, Boeing has struggled to achieve its milestones, and audit detection That NASA agreed to pay an additional $287 million to the company to address these schedule slips and “ensure the company continues as a second commercial crew provider.”

Starliner lifts off atop ULA’s Atlas V rocket in December 2019.
Photo: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O’Connell

When it finally came time to fly the Starliner, Boeing faced nothing but hurdles. As part of a commercial crew agreement with NASA, Boeing is supposed to launch an unmanned version of the capsule and put it through the actual launch steps before humans get on board. Boeing first attempted this in December 2019 with a mission called OFT, or Orbital Flight Test. While the Starliner was successfully launched into space atop its Atlas V rocket, a software glitch caused the capsule to incorrectly launch its engines, I got into the wrong orbit. The mission controllers were unable to fix the problem during the misfire due to a Communication blackout. In the end, the Starliner could not reach the International Space Station, and Boeing had to bring the capsule home early After only two days in space.

Later, Boeing and NASA revealed that engineers have done it Already fixed a Secondly Mid-flight software release, which could have caused a “catastrophic spacecraft failure” during landing if not addressed, according to NASA’s Safety Committee. Subsequently, NASA and Boeing launched a full investigation into the issues of Boeing’s foreign trade law and safety culture 80 recommendations Boeing must address before it takes flight again, such as running more simulations and testing integrated software. Boeing has also chosen to restart OFT – a new mission called OFT-2.

While Boeing worked to prepare for its missions, SpaceX successfully launched its first human crew in May 2020 and has conducted five manned missions to NASA since then.

try again

Boeing’s second attempt to launch the Starliner was supposed to happen last August, a year and a half after the failed OFT mission. After claiming to have implemented all the changes requested by NASA, the company has rolled out the Starliner on the launch pad in Florida, about to launch. But hours before the capsule was scheduled to take off, Boeing paused the countdown.

The company discovered that 13 of the Starliner’s 24 valves – used to transport the oxidized fuel in the capsule – They were stuck in the wrong position. While Boeing was able to free some of the fuses before the scheduled take-off time, a few didn’t budge, and the company opted to return the capsule to the factory for further inspection. It took months to diagnose the problem and included a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the valves. The company believes that some oxidizer in the valves may have leaked and mixed with moisture from the moist Florida air, Creating corrosion that prevents valves from opening properly.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft earlier this month, before the merger atop an Atlas V rocket.
Photo: NASA/Frank Michaux

Boeing says it has fixed the problem and is ready to fly again. The valves on the Starliner have been replaced, and Boeing has included some additional repairs to ensure corrosion never occurs again. A sealant was added to prevent moisture from entering the valves, and Boeing did a dry purge to get any extra moisture out of the system.

Originally, Boeing indicated that the valves would remain the same design. “We have not redesigned the valve at this point,” Michael Parker, Boeing’s vice president and deputy general manager for space and launch, said during a press conference. “These are the same valves.” However, after report in Reuters Joint friction between Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdynethe valve manufacturer, because of the adhesion, Boeing acknowledged that the company he is Consider redesigning the valve.

“The short-term solution was not to redesign the valve,” Naby said during a follow-up press conference. “This has always been the case. As a long-term solution, we have been looking at options for at least a month if not more, and it has included valve redesign as an option.”

the future

As of now, things seem to be on track for Thursday’s launch. “We did one last turn of all the valves [on Monday] “They all worked nominally, so we’re in great shape,” Naby said.

If Boeing can put the Starliner into orbit this time around, the main thing the company needs to prove is the ability of the Starliner to automatically dock with the International Space Station. This is a critical task that the capsule will have to perform in human spaceflight missions. Steve Stitch, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a press conference. If the launch is successful, Starliner will attempt to dock with the International Space Station on Friday afternoon, and its door will open on Saturday morning. The capsule will remain attached to the International Space Station for about four to five days before detaching and returning to Earth, landing either at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Edwards Air Force Base in California, or Willcox Playa in Arizona. .

All and everyone, Boeing really needs this job to go well. Although the company remains one of NASA’s largest partners, Her future with the space agency is a bit doubtful. Boeing’s work on NASA’s next generation rocket, the Space Launch System, continues to suffer from delay after delay, and its development costs have ballooned over the past decade. Boeing also lost a major multi-million dollar bid to build a new NASA human lander to put people on the moon. After a series of setbacks across the board, Boeing could use the Starliner’s win.

After the launch is over, it’s time to get ready to put people aboard the Starliner – and that could take some time, especially if Boeing decides to redesign the valve. NASA’s Safety Committee also noted that there was “a tremendous amount of work to be done” between the successful OFT-2 flight and a test flight with people on board. “The committee is pleased that from all indications, there is no sense of the need to rush,” Dave West, a member of NASA’s Space Safety Advisory Board, said during last week’s meeting.

But, in the end, any major Starliner setbacks also put NASA in a bind. While SpaceX has proven its ability to put crews into orbit for the space agency, NASA Do I like to have a surplus. Over the past decade, NASA has only had a Russian Soyuz rocket to get astronauts into orbit, which proved a tricky situation when one of the Soyuz planes failed during launch, raising concerns that NASA had no way to get astronauts into space. While NASA is still working to fly future astronauts aboard the Russian Soyuz capsules, tensions between the United States and Russia make this arrangement rather tenuous. Having Boeing’s Starliner in play would give NASA more options, something the agency has always liked to be.

“This mission is a major stepping stone for Boeing and NASA, as we enable … an additional crew provider for the International Space Station,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station Program Manager, during a press conference. “We consider this a historic trip.”