Fingers crossed

Starliner: Why a SpaceX rival could finally free NASA from Russian dependence

While SpaceX has soared, Boeing has had to wait it out.

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The Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 is a case study in second (and third, and fourth, and fifth, sixth) chances.

The mission: an uncrewed Boeing Starliner spacecraft will ride a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to orbit and dock with the International Space Station. The mission is dubbed Orbital Flight Test-2, or OFT-2.

The problems: software and hardware malfunctions have canceled launches and disrupted Starliner flight tests going back to late 2020.

A Starliner failed to make rendezvous with the ISS in December 2020 due to a software malfunction. The mission was rescheduled for July 30, 2021 but that launch was canceled after the Russian Nauka module on the ISS mistakenly fired its thrusters and threw the space station out of its proper orientation. For Starliner to dock, the ISS has to be business as usual.

The OFT-2 mission was rescheduled again for August 3, 2021 but was scrubbed due to “unexpected valve positions indicated in the Starliner propulsion system,” per an update from NASA. The next available launch window on August 4 also came and went.

NASA and Boeing have now given up on launching the Starliner before the end of the year, with the space agency announcing on October 8 that it will seek launch opportunities: “In the first half of 2022 for Orbital Flight Test-2.”

The reason for the delay is continued troubleshooting of a stuck oxidizer isolation valve by a Boeing and NASA team.

“This is a complex issue involving hazardous commodities and intricate areas of the spacecraft that are not easily accessed,” NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich announced. “It has taken a methodical approach and sound engineering to effectively examine.”

John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing's Commercial Crew Program, echoed Stich in a statement emailed to Inverse:

"Human spaceflight is a complex, precise, and unforgiving endeavor. Boeing and NASA teams will take the time they need to ensure the safety and integrity of the spacecraft and the achievement of our mission objectives."

How to watch Starliner 2022 launch

There will be live NASA TV coverage at www.nasa.gov/nasalive.

What is the purpose of Starliner?

Boeing and SpaceX are the only two companies to win contracts for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to use commercial providers to fly astronauts and cargo to the ISS and end the space agency’s reliance on the Russian Soyuz launching American astronauts from Kazakhstan.

Boeing updated hopeful viewers on Twitter. Boeing/Twitter

SpaceX first flew astronauts to the ISS in November aboard its Crew Dragon vehicle. Boeing — and NASA — hope Starliner can soon begin service as a second Commercial Crew vehicle.

NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said during an August 2021 mission briefing that the program provides a boost to crew time and cargo, which NASA can use to accomplish more science on the ISS. “That’s one of the deeper reasons we are here for this launch,” Melroy explained.

Critical background — Before the Starliner can begin ferrying that additional cargo and crew to the ISS and catalyze more great science, the spacecraft needs to prove to NASA that it can meet the mission requirements, including the failed docking procedure.

On December 20, during the first Starliner flight test, the space capsule’s mission elapsed time system malfunctioned, leading to unexpected maneuvering and burning through propellant, ultimately preventing the vehicle from attempting the ISS rendezvous.

“That’s going to be of critical importance on this mission coming up, that we demonstrate we can do rendezvous,” NASA associate administer Robert Cabana said during August’s briefing. “And we are going to bring some cargo home too, which is critical for future missions to the ISS.”

The NASA Commercial Crew program followed from the canceled Constellation program, a previous effort to build an American pipeline to orbit and transport to the ISS that had been lacking since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, having a second vehicle flying as part of that program provides an important redundancy that ensures NASA can keep the ISS supplied.

“What if we hadn’t had two competitors?” Nelson asked during the August briefing. “What if it had only been Boeing?”

The Boeing Starliner capsule set atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on July 17.Boeing/Damon Tucci

What Starliner means for human spaceflight

At August’s briefing, Cabana noted that Commercial Crew is more than just a means to bring crew and cargo launches to the ISS back to American soil — it’s about saving resources for what NASA really wants to do.

“Our goal with the Commercial Crew program is to commercialize low-Earth orbit,” he said. “We want to have a commercial economy in low-Earth orbit so that we can go on and do the hard things of returning to the moon, exploring beyond our home planet, and going on to Mars.”

NASA doesn’t simply want to stay out of the Earth to orbit taxi business, “we want a commercial space station in orbit too,” Cabana added.

“We don’t have to own and operate the entire thing. We can free up that funding for our exploration program and just buy what we need for the research in low-Earth orbit.”

The International Space Station as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2015. NASA

When is the crewed Starliner flight?

Assuming Boeing and NASA can fix the stuck oxidizer isolation valve problem and complete the uncrewed OST-2 mission sometime in the first half of 2022, NASA will then look to schedule the first crewed Starliner test flight. Whenever that crewed test flight happens, it will carry NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Nicole Mann, and Mike Fincke to the ISS.

A successful crewed test flight would then clear the path Starliner-1, the Starliner’s first operational flight carrying astronauts Jeanette Epps, Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada, and Koichi Wakata to the space station. While initially expected sometime in 2022, it’s not clear what delaying the uncrewed OST-2 test flight will do to the schedule for Starliner-1.

Editor’s note: This post was updated on October 13 to report on (another) scrubbed launch.

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