Boeing’s Starliner capsule for the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission is lifted atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket on May 4, 2022.
Boeing is considering whether to redesign the propulsion valves on its Starliner crew capsule, a crucial system that has prevented the company from flying astronauts for NASA – and competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Starliner is the spacecraft that Boeing developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, after winning nearly $5 billion in contracts to build the capsule. But the development of Starliner ran into several obstacles. A software malfunction halted the first uncrewed orbital flight in 2019, and a propulsion valve problem was identified before the launch of the second attempt last August.
“A redesign of the valves is definitely on the table,” Mark Nappi, Boeing vice president and Commercial Crew program manager, said at a press conference Wednesday. “Once we get all the information we need, we will make that decision.”
Boeing is making another attempt to launch the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission, which is scheduled to lift off on May 19. The company applied sealant to the valves for this attempt. But the fix is likely a temporary solution to the problem, which in August saw 13 of the 24 oxidizer valves that control Starliner’s movement through space jam after Florida humidity caused corrosion.
Depending on the result of OFT-2, Boeing would then prepare for a crewed flight test that would see the first astronauts fly Starliner. However, a redesign of the valve could further delay this crewed launch, given the need for Boeing to test and certify the solution by NASA.
To date, Boeing has spent $595 million due to the delays because it has a fixed-price contract with NASA to develop Starliner. Last year, the space agency made the rare decision to reassign astronauts from Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has just launched the company’s seventh manned spaceflight.
Reuters first reported that Boeing would redesign valves made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, although neither the company nor NASA had previously revealed the plans. Nappi confirmed that Boeing “has been exploring options for at least a month, if not longer.”
For now, Nappi said Boeing wants to “do a little more testing” to better understand how “those nitrates form inside” the valves, with those results guiding a team that has been set up.
“We are very confident for OFT-2 that we have a system that will work well,” Nappi said.