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Boeing postpones its Starliner mission after detecting a technical issue

Boeing postpones its Starliner mission after detecting a technical issue


A valve issue on Starliner stands in the way of its orbital do-over mission

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Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 Prelaunch
Photo by Aubrey Gemignani /NASA via Getty Images

Boeing has postponed the test launch of its uncrewed Starliner astronaut capsule. The delay was caused by a technical issue that popped up after lightning storms on Monday. Mission teams were figuring out whether the issues can be resolved in time for Starliner’s next launch opportunity on Wednesday around noon, but Boeing ruled that out by Tuesday night.

“We’re going to let the data lead our work,” Boeing’s Starliner manager John Vollmer says in a statement. “Our team has worked diligently to ensure the safety and success of this mission, and we will not launch until our vehicle is performing nominally and our teams are confident it is ready to fly.”

During routine engineering checks the day before Starliner’s planned launch, engineers noticed the position of some valves within Starliner’s propulsion system appeared out of place, Boeing said, adding that the issue was detected “following yesterday’s electrical storms in the region of Kennedy Space Center.” Starliner was slated to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Tuesday at 1:20PM ET. But now, after engineers spent most of Tuesday investigating the issue, Boeing says the next step would involve rolling Starliner’s rocket back into its integration tower for further inspection.

Ruling out a software glitch as the culprit for Starliner’s valve woes, Boeing has indicated the mystery lies somewhere in the spacecraft’s hardware. Engineers “have ruled out a number of potential causes, including software,” according to the company. “Additional time is needed to complete the assessment and, as a result, NASA and Boeing are not proceeding with” Wednesday’s backup launch opportunity.

The Starliner launch is a test mission without any humans aboard. It’s poised to fly to the International Space Station, demonstrate a clean docking procedure, and stay docked for roughly ten days before returning back to Earth. The mission comes more than a year and a half after Boeing’s first orbital Starliner test failed to reach the station and returned home earlier than planned in 2019.

Tuesday’s launch “scrub” — industry jargon for a launch delay — marks Starliner’s second so far. The spacecraft was initially set to fly to space on Friday, July 30th, but a mishap involving Russia’s new science module at the ISS forced Boeing to postpone the launch to Tuesday as NASA made sure the space station was safe and ready for a new spacecraft arrival. It’s unclear when Boeing and NASA will be ready to try launching Starliner again.

Update, 9:25PM ET: Added details from Boeing’s statement.