NASA and Boeing officials revealed the next steps for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft a day after a much-anticipated test flight was scrubbed because a sensor indicated a valve on the vehicle wasn’t in the proper position.
The spacecraft remained on its launchpad in Florida throughout the day amid speculation from engineers and others familiar with the spacecraft that it would need to be moved and perhaps disassembled to determine what went wrong. A new launch date, they speculated, could be weeks away.
Boeing said late Wednesday it will move Starliner on Thursday, "allowing the team to complete necessary work ahead of the Boeing-led inspections that will take place in the vertical integration facility." Once inside the facility not far from the launchpad, Boeing will continue "troubleshooting," having already "ruled out a number of potential causes, including software."
It's unclear what the company will find out and what its next steps would be. However, a lengthy investigation could add to what has already been a humiliating chain of events for Boeing, whose first test flight of Starliner in December 2019 ended when a software problem put the capsule in a wrong orbit and forced ground controllers to bring it home without reaching the International Space Station. Boeing then rewrote the capsule's software, taking 80 "corrective actions" and waiting for a launch window that aligned with available docking space at the space station. In the meantime, Boeing's rival, SpaceX, delivered three astronaut crews to the station.
Boeing officials originally said they thought a lightning strike near the spacecraft Monday might be the source of the problem. But determining that was impossible while the spacecraft and booster were on the launchpad, according to people familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. Some officials said it seemed likely that Starliner would have to be detached from the booster altogether for a visual inspection of the component to take place.
Boeing later said, the storm "appears to be an unlikely cause, but the team will closely inspect for water or electrical damage."
Such a move would almost certainly take days to accomplish, pushing any possible relaunch into a period when other events at the International Space Station could make a launch impossible for some time
"We will not launch until our vehicle is performing nominally and our teams are confident it is ready to fly," said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing's Commercial Crew Program. "We're going to let the data lead our work."
NASA declined to say when the next available launch window might come. "NASA and Boeing will look for the next available opportunity after resolution of the issue," a NASA spokesperson said via email.
There's a slim chance the problem could be fixed this week, according to aerospace engineers not affiliated with Boeing or NASA.
But what's more likely is a weeks-long delay as teams attempt to locate the source of the problem before beginning the multistep process of fixing it, putting the pieces back together and running safety tests.
Boeing attributed the scrubbed OFT-2 mission to "indications that not all valves were in the proper configuration needed for launch." The company hinted at lightning as the cause of the complication, saying the issue was initially detected following electrical storms in the region of Kennedy Space Center.
Less-than-stellar weather prompted ground personnel to roll Starliner indoors from the launchpad days earlier.
The valves in question may be used to help guide the spacecraft in the right direction in space, according to Sven Bilén, professor of aerospace engineering at Pennsylvania State University.
"If your car is misaligned, you'll be constantly pulling on the steering wheel to get it straight," he said. "In a spacecraft, it wouldn't maneuver the way that you expect it to. You risk not getting to the space station, or it burns up in the atmosphere coming back because it wasn't oriented the right way."
Based on the information released by Boeing, it seems like a complex issue to solve, aerospace engineers say.
"If the valve is broken, if they have to pull it out and replace it, you're talking weeks at a minimum," Bilén said. "If it's a sensor issue, and it's easy to replace," a relaunch could happen sooner. But there may be a concern that "the same issue is on other valves," he added.
While space vehicles are generally well-insulated, thunderstorms and spacecraft don't mix well. NASA learned that firsthand during the Apollo 12 launch in 1969. The Saturn V launch vehicle was struck twice as it headed to the moon with three astronauts on board. The event caused the aircraft to lose "nine nonessential instrumentation sensors," NASA said. However, the mission was still successful.
This isn't the first Starliner delay. Its first test flight went haywire in 2019. A retest was scheduled for last Friday, but that launch was postponed after a misfire of a Russian module sent the space station into a barrel roll.
Boeing can't simply relaunch Starliner whenever it wants. NASA determines safe mission dates and times based on a blend of factors, including the launch site availability, room to dock at the International Space Station, weather and orbital needs.
"A low Earth mission with specific timing needs must lift off at the right time to slip into the same orbit as its target," NASA says on its website. The space agency also has SpaceX trips to the space station set for later this year and a big mission to study asteroids associated with Jupiter no earlier than Oct. 16.
For Boeing, relaunching Starliner is critical. NASA has paid the company more than $4 billion for developing the capsule and flights, and any repairs now are added to the company’s expenses.