Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 Launch Update: What’s at stake

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is seen being rolled out to the launch pad for the OFT-2 mission, scheduled for liftoff on May 19, 2022.

Joel Kowski | NASA

Boeing wants to make another attempt to reach the International Space Station with its Starliner cOn Thursday, nearly 2 1/2 years after the company’s first mission fell short.

Boeing developed its Starliner spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew program and received nearly $5 billion in contracts to build the capsule. The company competes on the program with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has completed development of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and is now on its fourth operational manned spaceflight for NASA.

Boeing’s development of Starliner has encountered several obstacles over the past three years.

Its first unmanned mission in December 2019, dubbed the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), ended prematurely after a software glitch caused the capsule to go into the wrong orbit. NASA, earlier this year after investigating the issue, found that Boeing’s software development was “an area where we may not have had quite as much insight and oversight as we should have.”

Boeing attempted to launch the second orbital flight test, or OFT-2, in August, but the company discovered a problem with the propulsion valve while the spacecraft was still on the ground. Thirteen of the 24 oxidation valves that control Starliner’s movement in space became stuck after moisture at the launch site caused corrosion and the spacecraft’s service module was replaced.

Boeing has now applied sealant to the valves and is scheduled to make another attempt to launch OFT-2 Thursday at 18:54 ET.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will launch Starliner into orbit, where it will begin a 24-hour journey before docking with the ISS. The mission is expected to last a few days in total before the capsule returns to Earth.

The US Space Force 45th Weather Squadron forecast likely clear conditions for launch with the possibility of disruption from scattered thunderstorms around Cape Canaveral, Florida. A backup launch is scheduled for Friday, but the weather is expected to worsen that day.

Boeing’s ultimate test

The Launch Complex-41 crew access arm pivots into position for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft ahead of the launch of the OFT-2 mission, scheduled for May 19, 2022.

Joel Kowski | NASA

The aerospace giant was once considered equal to SpaceX in the race to launch NASA astronauts. But delays in the development of Starliner have consistently set Boeing back, both in terms of schedule and finances.

Due to the fixed-price nature of its NASA contract, Boeing covered the cost of additional work on the capsule, with the company having spent $595 million to date.

NASA took the rare step last year of transferring astronauts from Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The space agency also announced last year that it intends to purchase three more manned flights from SpaceX, which would put Musk’s company on track to potentially complete his original six-flight NASA contract before Starliner carries its first.

If Thursday’s OFT-2 launch is successful, Boeing would prepare for a manned flight test in which the first astronauts would fly on Starliner.

Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi said in a pre-launch press conference that the company could be ready for the manned flight “perhaps by the end of this year.” Still, the company is looking into redesigning the Aerojet Rocketdyne-made valves for Starliner, which could further delay it.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew manager, said the agency doesn’t see a redesign of the Starliner valves as “a big deal from a certification perspective.” NASA would work with Boeing to “figure out what kind of testing to do in the event of a redesign,” Stich noted, with an as yet undefined timeline for “how long it would take.”

‚ÄúPersonally, I would like to see Starliner fly beyond 2030. I would like to see Dragon fly past 2030. NASA has invested heavily in both of these vehicles, and they are great platforms to launch into low Earth orbit,” said Stich.

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