NASA and Boeing’s Starliner delays expose the challenges of space travel



boeing starliner

Getting stuck in an airport for a flight delayed a few hours is bad, but two NASA astronauts currently have it much worse. At this point, their ride to the International Space Station aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has been delayed nearly three weeks. 

Starliner, one of two crewed spaceflight projects contracted by NASA from commercial companies, was originally scheduled for its first test flight with humans aboard on May 6th. But, issues with a faulty fuel valve and an unrelated helium leak led to mission management repeatedly nudging back the launch date. NASA and Boeing have previously targeted a launch on May 25th, but the launch date has since been delayed once more. The opportunity to launch was “still being discussed” on May 22, but as of May 23, it is now projected for June 1. A successful flight would open the door for Starliner to become NASA’s second reliable launch vehicle in addition to SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule, an important milestone in humanity’s return to crewed space exploration—that is, if Starliner can overcome its technical issues.

Although NASA did everything—from rocket launches to spacesuits and beyond—in-house during the space race of the 60s and 70s, they’ve worked closely with up-and-coming aerospace companies in the 21st century, creating a new paradigm for spaceflight known as the NASA Commercial Crew Program. 

In 2014, NASA contracted both Boeing and SpaceX to develop and deliver rockets and crew capsules to safely transport astronauts into low Earth orbit and beyond, investing over six billion dollars in this endeavor. For decades since the end of the Space Shuttle program, American astronauts have relied on international partners to get them where they need to go, such as with the Russian Soyuz capsule that frequently travels to the International Space Station (ISS). Enlisting both Boeing and SpaceX makes sure that NASA will have a way to get people to space without relying on international help, even if one of the companies’ systems fails or becomes unavailable for any reason.

“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry to launch astronauts on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil to the International Space Station,” explains Leah Cheshier, public affairs officer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “The goal of the program is to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation to and from the orbiting laboratory [the ISS], which allows for additional research time and increases the opportunity for discovery aboard humanity’s testbed for exploration. This innovative approach also helps the agency maintain a human presence in low Earth orbit and enable exploration to the Moon in preparation for Mars for the benefit of humanity.”

Outsourcing some of the work to external agencies also frees up NASA to focus on its even more ambitious projects. “With the ability to purchase astronaut transportation from commercial companies as a service on a fixed-price contract, NASA can use resources to put the first woman, first person of color, and the first international partner on the Moon as a part of our Artemis missions in preparation for human missions to Mars,” adds Cheshier.

SpaceX’s Dragon already completed its test flights back in 2020 on the company’s Falcon rockets, making it the first commercial spacecraft to successfully complete such a feat, and it has been successfully carrying astronauts to and from the ISS since. Boeing’s Starliner, on the other hand, has faced some major challenges and setbacks. 

Both spacecraft are small habitats that sit atop a rocket (either the Falcon, or in Boeing’s case, the Atlas V from partner company ULA), protecting astronauts from the forces and dangers of riding on a massive rocket to the unwelcoming environment of outer space. These capsules are both around the size of a hefty SUV, designed to hold up to seven astronauts maximum and dock with the ISS. They’re also equipped with parachutes to glide their passengers to a safe landing back on Earth.

Starliner completed its uncrewed test flights back in 2021 and 2022, albeit with some hiccups. The first uncrewed test in orbit around Earth experienced some software issues, preventing the capsule from reaching the ISS at all. Problems with small mechanical parts like valves plagued the project in 2021, and even its successful run through in 2022 revealed additional things that needed fixing.

With those bugs hopefully squashed, Starliner is now about to launch its first crewed test, featuring astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams—both experienced navy pilots who have already taken some trips to the ISS and completed a collective 400-plus days in space. They’re planned to take a 24-hour ride to the station, stay aboard for a week to complete some additional tests on the capsule, and then return to Earth with a landing somewhere in the Western U.S. 

The goals of this test flight are basically to make sure everything works as expected: spacesuits, life support systems, thrusters, docking hardware, communications, astronaut seats and safety features, landing parachutes, you name it. They’ll also do a specific test aboard the ISS to prove the capsule could be used as a “safe haven” in the event of a catastrophe aboard the ISS (although the space station is a pretty darn safe place to be, at least if Earth’s not an option at the moment).

Unfortunately, all those goals are currently on pause as the mission team tries to iron out the remaining kinks. Starliner was first delayed due to a faulty valve on a liquid oxygen fuel tank, and then soon after that valve was replaced, delayed again due to a helium leak in another part of the craft. Just a few days ago, NASA announced in a press release that they “will take additional time to work through spacecraft closeout processes and flight rationale,” which “allows teams to further assess a small helium leak in the Boeing Starliner spacecraft’s service module.”

On the surface, it may seem strange that such a giant company, with years of research and development already poured into this project, would have so many complications. But, that leaves out one key piece of information: space travel is just really, really hard to do. Every system being created for this kind of exploration is nearly the first of its kind, and when human lives are on the line, we want to be as sure as possible that everything is perfect and going to plan before sending them on this dangerous journey. 

Compared to the tens of human spaceflight missions we’ve completed, there are billions of cars on Earth, tens of thousands of aircraft created by humans—and even with these well-tested, commonplace technologies, things often go wrong. We all know the experience of your car’s check engine light going off when you least expect it. Now imagine that light goes on when you’re days away from a mechanic, and you can’t leave your vehicle even if it catches on fire. That’s space travel.

As in the famous Kennedy speech from the Apollo days, we try to do things in space “not only because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The Atlas V rocket for NASA’s current hard-to-do thing is still on the launch pad, and Wilmore and Williams are ready to go when Starliner is ready. As with most NASA milestones, you can tune in to watch it yourself on NASA’s YouTube and other streaming channels. When this launch happens, it will be another momentous step in establishing our presence beyond our planet, paving the way for the first non-test flight of Starliner-1 in 2025 and Boeing’s certification as a reliable launch provider for NASA’s future endeavors to the ISS, the Moon and maybe even beyond.

Update May 22, 2024 11:00 AM: Another delay to the mission has been noted above.

Update May 23, 2024 8:13 AM: A new projected launch date has been noted above.



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