Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which has faced numerous delays, has experienced another setback.
Engineers recently discovered a problem with the spacecraft’s parachute system and identified flammable tape around the wiring harnesses inside the vehicle, leading to the postponement of the first launch of astronauts on the Starliner. These technical issues come on top of previous setbacks related to software, valves, and other components of the spacecraft.
Just like it’s stated in the very short update published by Boeing, Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the Starliner spacecraft, emphasized during the Teleconference the priority placed on safety in light of the recent challenges.
While the delays are disappointing, Nappi emphasized that the team is making the necessary choices to ensure the spacecraft’s reliability. The focus remains on addressing the technical issues to guarantee the safety of future missions.
“The bottom line here is safety is always our top priority. You can say we’re disappointed because that means a delay, but the team is proud that we’re making the right choices.”—Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Vice President & Starliner Program Manager
Parachute System Challenges
During recent testing and analysis conducted to certify the Starliner spacecraft’s parachute system for astronaut flights, engineers discovered that the “soft links” connecting the three main parachutes to the crew capsule were not as robust as anticipated.
These fabric soft links, of which there are eight on each main parachute, were expected to handle double the normal loads encountered during a mission. However, it was determined that the parachute connections did not meet the required safety factor.
While the issue did not impact the two unpiloted Starliner test flights conducted in 2019 and 2022, it became apparent that the soft links could fail under higher loads.
For example, if one of the spacecraft’s main chutes fails to deploy fully, the soft links might not withstand the resulting stress. The Starliner capsule is designed to safely land with two out of three main parachutes, ensuring the safety of the crew on board.
Flammable Tape Concerns
Moreover, another problem identified in recent weeks involves the use of flammable tape, known as P-213, to protect the wiring harnesses inside the Starliner spacecraft.
The adhesive used in this tape is flammable, raising concerns regarding the spacecraft’s overall safety. To address this issue, Boeing engineers will likely need to apply an additional layer of fire-resistant material to specific parts of the crew capsule. However, this modification will require the removal of already-installed covers in various sections of the spacecraft.
Impact on Launch Preparations
The technical challenges have prompted a temporary halt in the preparations for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, delaying the start of fueling procedures. Boeing technicians will need to remove the parachutes from the Starliner spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center. To accomplish this, ground teams will have to remove the crew capsule’s forward heat shield and forward bay cover. Modified soft links with the necessary load-bearing characteristics will be incorporated into the parachutes before they are repacked for future flights.
Technical hurdles have been a recurring theme throughout the Starliner program. Mark Nappi acknowledged that while challenges are being discovered at a late stage, this process demonstrates a commitment to identifying and rectifying issues. Some designs and processes implemented years ago may have contributed to these problems going undetected.
Boeing was awarded a $4.2 billion commercial crew contract by NASA in 2014, with the goal of completing the development of the Starliner capsule, conducting test flights, and ultimately launching six long-duration crew rotation flights to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA, in parallel, awarded SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract for similar objectives using the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
SpaceX successfully launched its first astronaut test flight in May 2020, marking three years since the milestone. The company has since completed a total of ten human spaceflight missions, including both NASA missions and commercial crew flights.
Additionally, SpaceX has secured contract extensions for eight more NASA crew missions to the ISS, totaling 14 NASA astronaut flights through 2030.
NASA’s Need for a Second Crew Transportation Provider
NASA remains committed to establishing Boeing’s Starliner as a second crew transportation provider for the ISS, as the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which has been the sole means of crew transportation for nine years, currently serves as NASA’s backup option in case of significant delays or failures with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket or Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Furthermore, as per the terms of NASA’s firm-fixed price commercial crew contracts, the cost of delays and necessary repairs falls on the industry. Consequently, Boeing bears the financial burden of addressing the technical problems encountered by the Starliner.
Since October of the previous year, these delays have already cost Boeing nearly $900 million.
Despite the ongoing delays, NASA reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the Starliner program. Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, expresses the agency’s eagerness to have Boeing certified and ready to transport crews to the ISS, providing NASA with a second reliable crew transportation option. The space agency recognizes the importance of having multiple providers to ensure continuous crewed operations on the ISS.
Next Steps and Independent Review
Boeing and NASA have not provided an estimate for the resolution of the newest technical problems encountered by the Starliner spacecraft.
While it might still be possible to launch the Starliner Crew Flight Test later this year, potentially in the fall following upcoming space station crew rotation flights in August and September, program managers remain cautious about providing a definitive timeline.
Lastly, as we reported just days ago, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) of NASA has called for an independent review of the technical problems affecting the Starliner program. Despite this recommendation, NASA has decided to continue using its existing processes, including input from experts at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center.
This approach ensures an independent reporting path to address the concerns raised by ASAP while maintaining a comprehensive safety evaluation framework for human spaceflight missions.