For SpaceUpClose.com & RocketSTEM
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The Boeing Starliner astronaut ferry ship stacked atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket was rolled back from Launch Complex-41 and returned to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday, August 5, after problems with the functionality and movement of propulsion valves in the service module were detected and forced a launch scrub and indefinite delay on Tuesday, August 3 – as the spacecraft was poised for liftoff on a critical mission for NASA on its second attempt at an unpiloted test flight to reach the International Space Station (ISS) from Florida’s Spaceport.
Rollback and return to the VIF allows Boeing engineers the ability to carry out “a systematic inspection and troubleshooting plan on Starliner to determine the cause of the unexpected valve position indications in the Service Module’s propulsion system, which led to the scrub of Tuesday’s launch,” Boeing said.
Our #Starliner and @ulalaunch teams are rolling back the spacecraft and rocket this morning. This trip back to the Vertical Integration Facility will give engineers the ability to continue inspections and troubleshooting for #OFT2. pic.twitter.com/7x937k17tl
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) August 5, 2021
Some progress has been made by Boeing engineers to restore some functionality to 7 of 13 affected propulsion valves in the Starliner service module.
However the root cause remains to be determined and much work remains to confirm that the valves will function reliably, robustly and repeatedly during launch and the entire OFT-2 test flight to the ISS and back.
The earliest Starliner could launch is mid-August but only if the teams fix all the problems rapidly
Otherwise Starliner may have to wait weeks to months because of other high priority launches like the SpaceX Cargo Dragon slated for liftoff for NASA to the ISS on Aug. 29 and NASA’s Lucy mission to investigate Trojan asteroids on another ULA Atlas V on Oct. 16.
Work platforms were installed around Starliner inside the VIF to enable direct access by the engineering team.
Starliner was also powered up – a process that takes several hours – so the vehicle can receive commands.
#Starliner and #AtlasV are in @ulalaunch's Vertical Integration Facility. Our team is prepping to power on the spacecraft, a process that takes several hours. This will enable the team to send commands to the Starliner and receive data real-time.
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) August 5, 2021
The problematic propulsion valves connect to thrusters that enable abort and in-orbit maneuvering, critical to success of the mission and astronaut safety.
Engineers detected incorrect indications in the positions of the valves in the propulsion system located in the Starliners service module during the final hours of the prelaunch countdown on Aug. 3.
The launch of the Boeing Starliner on the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission was scrubbed during the countdown and about three hours before the planned liftoff time of 1:20 p.m. EDT (1720 GMT) on Tuesday, Aug. 3 on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida during an instantaneous launch window.
The uncrewed OFT-2 essentially amounts to a ‘redo’ mission to prove the commercial system can safely carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) on its second try.
A total of 13 propulsion valves on the service module were affected and apparently failed to open during the Aug. 3 prelaunch countdown.
“NASA and Boeing continued work over the weekend and Monday morning on the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft service module propulsion system in preparation for the Orbital Flight Test-2 mission to the International Space Station, NASA official reported today.
“Work progressed to restore functionality to several valves in the Starliner propulsion system that did not open as designed during the launch countdown for the Aug. 3 launch attempt. The valves connect to thrusters that enable abort and in-orbit maneuvering.”
So far Boeing has been able to restore some functionality to seven of 13 valves and successfully coaxed them to command them to open from their previous closed positions.
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) August 9, 2021
But much work remains to confirm that the valves will function reliably, robustly and repeatedly.
“Test teams are applying mechanical, electrical and thermal techniques to prompt the valves to open, and are moving forward with a systematic plan to open the remainder of the affected valves, demonstrate repeatable system performance, and verify the root cause of the issue before returning Starliner to the launch pad for its Orbital Flight Test-2 mission.”
NASA also reported that Boeing found no damage or external corrosion to Starliner following last weeks intense thunderstorms and drenching rain.
“Boeing also has completed physical inspections and chemical sampling on the exterior of a number of the affected valves, which indicated no signs of damage or external corrosion.”
Furthermore Boeing must confirm that all of the affected valves will work as advertised before NASA will permit a launch and determine a realistic and acceptable launch date that does not conflict with the immutable planetary launch window of the Lucy mission.
“If all valve functionality can be restored and root cause identified, NASA will work with Boeing to determine a path to flight for the important uncrewed mission to the space station.”
“NASA, Boeing and ULA are assessing the potential for several launch opportunities with the earliest available in mid-August. Any launch date options would protect for the planetary window for the agency’s Lucy mission – the first-ever mission to explore Trojan asteroid.”
“We’re letting the data drive our decision-making and we will not fly until our integrated teams are comfortable and confident,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, in a statement.
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) August 6, 2021
The Aug. 3 scrub was the second Starliner launch delay in less than a week following the inadvertent thrust firing incident of the newly docked Russian Nauka science module on July 29 that forced a postponement of the then planned liftoff targeted for July 30 following the inadvertent thrust firing incident of the newly docked Russian Nauka science module on July 29.
The goal of OFT-2 mission is to test the end-to-end capabilities of Starliner from launch to docking, atmospheric re-entry, and a desert landing in the western United States.
OFT-2 will provide valuable data that will help NASA certify Boeing’s crew transportation system to carry astronauts to and from the space station.
The Boeing Starliner is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to restore human spaceflight launch capabilities to the US and end total reliance on the Russian Soyuz crew capsule.
NASA’s other Commercial Crew Program (CCP) partner SpaceX has already successfully launched three crews of astronauts to the ISS since May 2020.
Boeing will fly this second uncrewed Starliner mission OFT-2 at their own expense of some $420 million on an Atlas V that was targeting liftoff Aug. 3 to prove to NASA the vehicle is safe and reliable.
OFT-2 is the last flight before the Starliner system launches American astronauts on the Crew Flight Test to the microgravity laboratory – the first flight test with crew on board.
If all goes well with OFT-2 a trio of NASA astronauts will fly on the first crewed Starliner mission dubbed CFT (Crew Flight Test) perhaps as soon as years end – if Starliner launches soon.
The CFT crew of NASA astronauts comprises Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore, Mike Fincke & Nicole Mann.
Great images of our troubleshooting teams at work! #Starliner is safely in the @ulalaunch’s VIF where @BoeingSpace can fix things and get back to a countdown. Being careful and smart…#NASA #OFT2 #atlasv https://t.co/O9LHDoPdhl
— Col. Mike Fincke (@AstroIronMike) August 6, 2021
My interviews about the ISS, Starliner and Nauka, the rollout and the importance of the mission were featured on WESH 2 NBC Orlando on Aug. 4/5, WKMG CBS 6 and Spectrum News 13 on Aug. 3 & 4, Fox 35 Orlando on July 26, WFTV ABC 9 News Orlando on Aug. 4, July 22 & 23 and WESH 2 NBC News Orlando on July 18 & 19.
Watch Ken’s continuing reports about ISS, Starliner and Commercial Crew and Crew Dragon, Artemis and NASA missions, SLS, Orion, SpaceX, Starlink from onsite for live reporting of upcoming and recent SpaceX and ULA launches including Crew 1 & 2, Demo-2, ISS, X-37B, Solar Orbiter, Mars 2020 Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, NRO spysats and more national security missions and more at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news: www.kenkremer.com –www.spaceupclose.com – twitter @ken_kremer – email: ken at kenkremer.com
Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics.
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