Preparations continue for Boeing’s Starliner Crewed Flight Test (CFT). The mission is intended to be the first crewed test of the capsule. Boeing aims to have the capsule ready for March, in line with what it had previously predicted. However, teams postponed the flight to April to better fit in with the ISS’ scheduled operations.
Back in June, engineers discovered that flammable tape had been used throughout the spacecraft. The tape, called P-213, is used to protect wiring harnesses. Currently, the tape has been removed from the upper portion of the crew compartment. Technicians expect to clear the bottom part within a few weeks.
By the end of the year, new parachutes will be installed. These incorporate a new design of the soft-link joints, which are fabric elements connecting the parachutes to the capsule. The old design was found to not meet the required safety factor. This meant that under certain conditions, such as the opening of only two parachutes, they could have failed under excessive loads. The new parachutes include strengthened soft-links and main canopy lines to address the issue.
Teams have also implemented fixes to radiator bypass valves and have completed qualification testing of the flight software. 98% of all needed certifications are complete, and all should be obtained by early next year.
A troubled history
Starliner is not new to trouble. After a long development, the capsule first flew in 2019, with the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test 1 (OFT-1). A software issue caused the spacecraft to maneuver incorrectly, using too much fuel and preventing docking with the International Space Station. The test was repeated in 2022, this time with success.
Other issues included stuck nitrogen tetroxide valves that delayed OFT-2 in 2021. The valves became inoperable after moist Florida air reacted with the NTO. This created nitric acid, which corroded the aluminum used in the valves. The entire service module was swapped with the one built for CFT, and CFT was assigned the one intended for the first commercial flight. More thorough cleaning procedures were adopted to prevent the issue from reoccurring.
A drop test is planned for early next year, to test the parachute modifications. The CFT should then follow in April, commanded by Barry Wilmore and piloted by Sunita Williams. Both are veteran astronauts, who have been into space twice riding both the Space Shuttle and the Soyuz. The two should spend eight days on board the ISS before returning to Earth.
If the flight is successful, it will pave the way to commercial operations on NASA’s behalf. The space agency awarded Boeing with a contract for six flights to the ISS back in 2014, under the Commercial Crew program. Since then, the development has gone over time and over budget, although the extra costs were covered by Boeing. And of course, competitor SpaceX has been flying the Dragon 2 for three years now.
While the history is not very encouraging, at this very moment things are improving. Previous issues are being resolved and the launch date has not changed by much. If everything goes to plan, the US will soon have two operational crewed vehicles. This will give them both access to space and redundancy, which is the point of funding two capsules. But this depends only on how the CFT goes.