Boeing and NASA Resolve Starliner Technical Issues Ahead of Crewed Mission

Boeing (BA.N) and NASA have addressed two critical technical issues with the Starliner spacecraft, including a significant “design vulnerability,” to keep the capsule on track for its inaugural crewed mission. This mission, scheduled for June 1, will carry two astronauts to space.Technical Challenges and SolutionsStarliner’s debut crewed mission faced a delay earlier this month due to a small helium leak detected in its propulsion system just hours before launch from Florida. After two weeks of thorough inspection, officials confirmed that the leak poses no significant risk to the astronauts.”This is really not a safety of flight issue for ourselves, and we believe that we have a well-understood condition that we can manage,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, during a news conference.

Boeing Upcoming Mission Details

The mission, featuring NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, serves as the final test before NASA can certify Starliner for routine trips to and from the International Space Station (ISS). If successful, Starliner will join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has been operational since 2020, as the second U.S. crew capsule.Design Vulnerability and Temporary FixDuring the investigation of the helium leak, engineers discovered an additional issue in Starliner’s propulsion system, described as a “design vulnerability” by Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew chief. Modeling revealed that a highly unlikely series of events could disable the capsule’s backup thrusters, jeopardizing its safe return to Earth. A software fix provides a temporary solution for this mission, while Boeing and NASA consider a more comprehensive redesign for future flights.”It’s backed by test data, it’s backed by flight data, and the guidance and navigation modeling have reinforced that this technique will work,” Nappi added, noting that the astronauts had tested the system post-fix.

Flight Readiness Review

The resolution of these issues prompted NASA to schedule an additional Flight Readiness Review, an in-depth meeting with agency officials, Boeing engineers, and independent analysts to confirm Starliner’s safety for flight. This review is set for Wednesday, just three days before the planned June 1 launch at 12:25 PM ET. Backup launch windows are available on June 2, 5, and 6.

Critical Timing and Potential DelaysBoeing, initially set to launch Starliner on May 6, is under pressure to meet one of these early June dates. Missing these windows could lead to further delays, as perishable items on Starliner and its Atlas 5 rocket, built by United Launch Alliance (ULA), would need replacement.

This would conflict with ULA’s other scheduled launches, including Amazon’s Kuiper satellites and the second flight of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.Boeing’s Challenges and GoalsBoeing, a longstanding NASA contractor known for building modules for the ISS, has yet to achieve a human spaceflight.

The company is in dire need of a successful Starliner mission, especially after accumulating $1.5 billion in unexpected development costs and enduring numerous crises in its aviation sector.Starliner first attempted to reach the ISS in 2019 but returned prematurely due to multiple software, technical, and management issues, which reshaped Boeing’s relationship with NASA. A re-do flight in 2022 to the ISS was successful, setting the stage for the upcoming crewed mission.The June 1 mission is crucial for Boeing as it seeks to overcome past setbacks and solidify its role in NASA’s human spaceflight program.

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