Boeing’s astronaut taxi – a CST-100 Starliner capsule – was scheduled to launch Friday, July 30 at 14:53 EDT on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). This was due to be Starliner’s second attempt at an uncrewed meetup with the space station, following a malfunction with the spacecraft’s timer on the mission’s first try in December 2019, causing the mission clock to be off by about 11 hours.
Starliner’s debut attempt resulted in the spacecraft getting stranded in the wrong orbit, circling Earth solo for two days before having to return home. Not only was there a timing glitch, but the post-flight analyses by Boeing and NASA revealed 80 corrective actions for the company to take. Boeing is said to have made all of those changed, as well as additional changes that were not deemed mandatory.
The mission was later scheduled to launch Tuesday, August 3 at 13:20 EDT, on a United Launce Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Unfortunately, however, Starliner’s launch has now been delayed indefinitely, after struggling to find the cause of an ‘unexpected valve position’ in the propulsion system. Had the OFT-2 gone ahead as planned, the Starliner would have spent a day in space before docking with the ISS for up to 10 days, then returning to Earth in the New Mexico desert.
Boeing and SpaceX were each awarded one of NASA’s first commercial crew contracts in 2010. In September 2014, NASA selected both of them to be official commercial crew providers. Courtesy of this deal, Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion to finish developing Starliner and send up to six contracted crewed missions to the space station. SpaceX received a similar deal would about $2.6 billion for its own transportation system, which consists of the Crew Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 rocket.
Initially, NASA announced the target of one or both private spacecrafts to be operational by 2017. Neither Boeing nor SpaceX reached these goals following various development issues and malfunctions upon take off. Boeing has, however, fallen behind SpaceX in the competition to provide commercial flights to the ISS for space agencies including NASA. SpaceX has already flown two sets of astronauts to the ISS, with another scheduled for October and a private flight under operation for 2022.
NASA and Boeing plan to work through every function of the spacecraft in order to identify the cause of the unexpected valve position. Despite this, the flight has only been given a 60 per cent chance of success due to the risk of thunderstorms.
No new date has been announced for the Starliner launch. Safety first.