Is Boeing’s Starliner An Anomaly, Or Is Space Flight Just Really Hard?

The vehicle has experienced a string of issues, but so did most spacecraft that came before it.

The countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center's press site sports the Boeing CST-100 Starliner logo fo...
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NASA and its space aviation partners are in the midst of a major problem. Their newest human-rated spacecraft, Boeing’s Starliner, is in the middle of a string of issues. The latest? A second helium leak. While it might seem easy to place full blame on Boeing, in reality, rocketry is, put simply, extremely difficult.

Boeing and SpaceX received contracts a decade ago to build out the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. This would see astronauts launch into space from American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle retired. In the interim, NASA paid Russia tens of millions of dollars to purchase individual seats on their Soyuz spacecraft. This mostly wrapped up when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon aced its summer 2020 astronaut debut flight.

Boeing’s Starliner is meant to join the Crew Dragon as a go-to transportation vehicle, but its been delayed longer than expected. Earlier this month, it was moments from flying Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station. But two hours before the targeted launch window, officials from the company that supplied the rocket, United Launch Alliance, recommended standing down. The initial problem was a liquid oxygen valve. That was swiftly addressed. But as teams reviewed the crew capsule, they detected a helium leak. That, too, was quickly fixed. But a new, unrelated, helium leak has now emerged.

NASA, United Launch Alliance, and Boeing employees hold a press conference to discuss the scrubbed launch of NASA's Boeing Starliner spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center on May 6, 2024 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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Helium is important because it allows the spacecraft thrusters to fire, and isn’t combustible or toxic, according to NASA.

NASA will conduct a flight readiness review probably next week, the space agency reported on Thursday. The new target launch date is June 1.

Putting the delay into perspective

Delays stemming from mechanical issues are not uncommon.

Even tried and tested launch vehicles, like the SpaceX reusable Falcon fleet, have experienced ongoing issues like corrosion from salt water.

When the SpaceX Crew Dragon was at the same stage as the Boeing Starliner is now, with a successful uncrewed docking at the orbiting laboratory under its belt, and in the midst of preparations for sending its first astronauts into space, the Crew Dragon literally blew up.

As CBS News reported in 2019, teams were just about to fire up its “fault-tolerant propulsion” engines, which would bring the crew capsule away from the rocket in less than eight seconds in case of an emergency during liftoff. But just before beginning this test of its launch escape system, there was an anomaly. Beachgoers witnessed reddish-orange smoke rising after the incident. Crew Dragon didn’t fly its first astronauts, for the Demo-2 mission, until a year later.

Artemis I, NASA’s most-recent foray around the Moon with a human-rated spacecraft, is another example of this liminal space.

The premier mission of the Artemis program established that the Orion capsule could successfully swing out past the Moon, farther than any such spacecraft has flown before, and land back on Earth, coming in faster and hotter than Apollo astronauts ever did. But the first trip with astronauts, Artemis II, has been delayed by a year due to an issue with the heat shield. Charred material unexpectedly came off the capsule during descent, posing a potential risk to the integrity of the spacecraft if it happened to be entering a different orientation than its entry in late 2022.

In the grand scheme of spaceflight history, delays tend to fade from memory. What people remember is the awe of a successful trip, and the sad moments when they’ve failed. Space is undeniably hard.

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