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HomeTechNASA delays flight of Boeing’s Starliner again, this time for parachutes

NASA delays flight of Boeing’s Starliner again, this time for parachutes

Starliner lands for the first time in December 2019.
Enlarge / Starliner lands for the first time in December 2019.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and Boeing announced on Wednesday that the first manned flight of the Starliner spacecraft will now take place no earlier than July 21. This pushes the flight of the vehicle carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore from the previously announced April timeframe.

NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said the delay was due to the extra time it took to complete the pre-flight verification process of Starliner and also traffic from other vehicles serving the space station visited in June and the first half of July.

“If we look at all the different parts, most of the work will be completed for the flight in April,” Stich said during a conference call with reporters. “But there’s an area that stretches into May and that really has to do with the parachute system certification products.”

Boeing has conducted more than 20 tests of its parachute system, including dropping the vehicle from different heights to test its deployment sequence and the performance of the parachutes in different environments to simulate a return from space. Stich said there were no problems with the parachutes already installed on Starliner. Most of the time it’s a matter of verifying all the tests Boeing has done to ensure the parachutes are working as intended.

“It’s just going through all this data and looking at the data and making sure we’re really ready to fly safely,” said Stich.

One last test needs to be done on the ground, he said, of a parachute subsystem that pulls Starliner’s forward heat shield away and sets up deployment of the drogue and then the main parachutes. This test is targeted for May.

The additional time needed to complete the verification process of Starliner and its parachute system delayed the vehicle’s launch into June. At this point, however, NASA plans to launch SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo resupply mission, which will tie up one of the lab’s docking hatches. This supply mission is bringing solar arrays to the station, which NASA does not want to delay because it would delay planned spacewalks to install them. The lack of a docking port therefore postponed the Starliner flight to the second half of July.

NASA and Boeing also need to align schedules with the United Launch Alliance, which is propelling the mission into orbit with its Atlas V rocket. The company currently has the USSF-51 mission scheduled for Space Force this summer and also requires the Space Launch Complex-41 pad for the debut of its Vulcan rocket in May or later this summer.

This will be the third flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The vehicle’s December 2019 debut failed to rendezvous with the International Space Station after several issues, including software issues. After these issues were addressed, Boeing flew the vehicle on a second test flight in May 2022. Although there were some propulsion problems on this flight, Starliner docked with the space station and set the stage for a manned flight test.

After Boeing completes this critical test flight and NASA certifies the vehicle as operational, the company will fly to the space station for regular crew rotations about once a year. The first of these operational missions is planned for spring 2024 at the earliest.



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