For Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA certainly hopes the second time around will be the charm. But the agency will have to wait a little longer.
A launch of the orbital capsule, scheduled for 1:20 p.m. EST, was postponed Tuesday morning. A Boeing statement said its engineers have detected “unexpected valve position indications in the propulsion system.”
Depending on how long it takes to resolve the issue, Boeing said it could try again on Wednesday, although the weather may not cooperate at the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida.
Boeing is one of two companies that NASA has hired to take its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (SpaceX is the other, with its Crew Dragon spacecraft.)
Two years ago, Boeing seemed to be on track to be the first to be ready to take on astronauts.
Pretty much all that was left was a demo flight with no astronauts on board, which launched in December 2019. Embarrassingly, things went wrong almost immediately, exposing faulty software and reminiscent of the issues that the aviation division of Boeing had with the 737 Max jet, which led to a pair of fatal crashes.
Not only was Starliner not ready for astronauts, it took Boeing over a year to analyze what was wrong, rewrite its software, and validate that the spacecraft would be trustworthy.
Why was the launch delayed last week?
This is actually the second delay in a week: Starliner was due to launch on Friday. But then events in orbit around the Earth took place.
Russia has launched a new space station module, Nauka, which successfully docked Thursday morning. But then Nauka’s thrusters inadvertently started firing again, push the International Space Station into a spin, spinning about one and a half times before controllers check it after about an hour.
The space station doesn’t appear to have survived the wear and tear of its unplanned gymnastics routine, but NASA officials wanted to take the time to make sure. Due to classified military operations at Cape Canaveral over the weekend, the next launch opportunity was Tuesday afternoon.
What will happen during the flight to the space station?
When taking off, the spacecraft will spend approximately 24 hours in orbit before arriving at the space station and docks.
Among the objectives of this demonstration flight are the verification of the power supply, navigation and communication systems. But the bigger goal is to test the docking system, which was not tested on the first flight.
Even though there will be no astronauts on board, the capsule will not be empty. In the commander’s seat will be Rosie the Rocketeer, a dummy equipped with 15 sensors to collect data on conditions people will experience during the flight. Rosie was on board on the first Starliner trip.
The capsule also carries 400 pounds of cargo and supplies for the space station.
Starliner must remain docked at the space station for five to 10 days before returning to Earth, landing with parachutes and a large airbag in the desert of the western United States (unlike SpaceX’s capsule, which lands in the sea off Florida).