Boeing Starliner “Hangar Queen” Crew Flight Test Delayed Again

A Boeing official said Thursday that the company was “standing down” from an attempt to launch the Starliner spacecraft on July 21 to focus on recently discovered issues with the vehicle.

The issues seem rather serious to have been discovered weeks before Starliner was due to launch on an Atlas V rocket. The first involves “soft links” in the lines that run from Starliner to its parachutes. Boeing discovered that these were not as strong as previously believed.

During a normal flight, these substandard links would not be an issue. But Starliner’s parachute system is designed to land a crew safely in case one of the three parachutes fails. However, due to the lower failure load limit with these soft links, if one parachute fails, it’s possible the lines between the spacecraft and its remaining two parachutes would snap due to the extra strain.

The second issue involves P-213 glass cloth tape that is wrapped around wiring harnesses throughout the vehicle. These cables run everywhere, and Nappi said there are hundreds of feet of these wiring harnesses. The tape is intended to protect the wiring from nicks. However, during recent tests, it was discovered that under certain circumstances possible in flight, this tape is flammable.

Boeing will spend the next few weeks diving deeper into these issues and identifying a path forward to address these and other problems. For example, [Boeing Starliner program manager Mike] Nappi also said that, as Boeing was preparing to load propellant on Starliner ahead of the July flight, it found another sticky valve. Valves have been an ongoing problem with the Starliner spacecraft.

The Commercial Crew program is being funded through a fixed-price contract. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award from NASA in 2014, but due to ongoing delays—initially, Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon were supposed to fly in 2017—Boeing has already taken cumulative charges of $900 million against its earnings. Nappi said Thursday that it is too early to say if these issues will result in additional financial charges to the program.

Since its first crewed mission in May 2020, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has flown 10 crewed missions. Funding for the Crew Dragon was US$ 2.6 billion, compared to US$ 4.2 billion for Starliner.

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It’s not as if NASA is in the business of making money. They are in the business of getting Congressional authorizations. So SpaceX is making them look bad, while Starliner is accomplishing the mission.

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Boeing Pocketliner!

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Audio only:

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The Washington Post weighs in on Starliner, “Once seen as the future, Boeing struggles to make a case for Starliner”.

Boeing had big plans for its new space capsule, even before it won a $4.2 billion contract in 2014 to develop a spacecraft for NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. If space were indeed going to open to the masses, as many at the time were predicting, Boeing wanted to position itself as the premier spacecraft provider, the way it had with commercial airliners.

Nearly a decade later, those dreams have crumbled. Not a single person has flown Boeing’s spacecraft to space. No one has booked a private flight. The company has had to absorb about $1.4 billion in cost overruns, and NASA’s safety advisers have called for an independent review of the program. Meanwhile, SpaceX, which received a contract at the same time Boeing did, but for nearly 40 percent less money, has flown eight missions to the ISS for NASA, as well as additional private astronaut crews.

What went wrong? How could one of the world’s most legendary aerospace companies fail so miserably in its race with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and still be on the ground when its competitor has been launching astronauts to the space station since 2020? One top NASA official called Boeing’s inability to get its CST-100 Starliner capsule into regular use an “existential” challenge.

“That commercial model is not exactly the way Boeing was structured,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in an interview. “So, they’ve had to work through that and make sure that they’re resourcing it, and, you know, it’s tough. You’ve got to put a lot of skin in the game. That’s not the way they’ve been structured from the beginning.”

“There is pride to it, and Boeing has a long history in human spaceflight programs,” said Todd Harrison, a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “If they were to throw in the towel on Starliner, they would be walking away from that history and basically ceding it to the new space companies.”

Inquiring minds want to know, by whom was Starliner “Once seen as the future”?

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The first crewed test flight of Starliner has been pushed back an additional month, to no earlier than mid-April 2024, NASA officials said in a release on Thursday (Oct. 12). No reason was given for the change. The target date for the first operational flight of the Boeing spaceship has also been delayed, to early 2025 from summer 2024, agency officials added.

NASA and Boeing had previously said that they were eyeing early March 2024 for Starliner’s debut astronaut mission, known as Crew Flight Test (CFT). That was just an anticipated spacecraft readiness date, however, not an official launch target.

Boeing announced the Starliner (then called CST-100) in 2010 and in September 2014 won a US$ 4.2 billion NASA contract to build and certify Starliner to fly NASA crews to the International Space Station by 2017. If it actually flies in 2024, it will be ten years after the contract was awarded and seven years after the contracted first flight. So far, Boeing has incurred US$ 883 million in charges against earnings due to delays and problems with Starliner.

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