Boeing and NASA postponed the launch the company’s Starliner space capsule to the International Space Station on Friday after a mishap at the orbital laboratory on Thursday.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket had been scheduled to launch the capsule on an uncrewed test flight from Florida. But a new Russian module, Nauka, created a brief crisis at the space station when the module’s thrusters began to fire unexpectedly it docked Thursday morning.
Russian flight controllers quickly quelled the problem by igniting the space station’s main thrusters and subsequently shut off the errant Nauka thrusters. NASA said there was no danger to the crew at any time.
“The launch … has been delayed due to the situation on board the International Space Station,” launch company ULA announced Thursday afternoon. “The combined NASA, Boeing and ULA teams are working to determine the next launch attempt.”
NASA said Thursday afternoon that the launch now could come as early as Aug. 3, but that remained uncertain.
Boeing must show that Starliner can fly astronauts safely to the International Space Station in the uncrewed test.
The company’s previous Starliner test flight in December 2019 failed to reach the orbiting laboratory because of software problems, putting the Starliner program far behind SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program.
If successful, Boeing’s Starliner would provide similar astronaut ferrying service as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule began in May 2020. But if Starliner fails again, NASA would be left — at least temporarily — with only SpaceX as a provider in a program designed to be competitive.
“It’s a very important flight for the Commercial Crew Program, having our second space transportation system available to carry crew to space,” Steve Stich, NASA’s manager for the commercial crew program, said Tuesday in a press conference. “This flight will test many of the important systems on the vehicle.”
If Boeing’s spacecraft reaches the space station successfully, NASA will run a series of tests and then return the capsule several days later to a parachute-assisted landing in the western United States.
Boeing ran hundreds of simulations before and after the failed 2019 test flight, said John Vollmer, the company’s program manager for Starliner.
Boeing made major changes to software and software simulations after the capsule failed to pick up the correct elapsed mission time from the rocket in 2019. That resulted in a series of mistakes as the capsule’s software burned fuel needlessly, Boeing and NASA previously found.
“The biggest change in software was in the communications coding,” Vollmer said. Those changes included new safeguards that would ensure the capsule would seek new communications connections if such connections were lost, and to ensure “an antenna is pointed back at Earth” after the capsule separates from the rocket, he said.
NASA classified the previous test failure as a “high visibility close call,” the lowest category NASA uses for serious mission problems. Boeing agreed to a lengthy checklist of fixes and checkouts before Starliner would fly again.
Boeing should be worried about the test, said Marco Cáceres, space analyst for the Teal Group based in Fairfax, Va.
“It’s really clear that SpaceX has become the establishment player,” Cáceres said. “NASA is getting very accustomed and comfortable with SpaceX’s culture, and my gut feeling is if Boeing doesn’t get this totally right, they’re done, in terms of providing launch services for NASA.”
And yet, NASA very much wants a second option for reaching the space station, he said.
“I think NASA is rooting for Boeing and hoping it goes well and hoping they can rely on two providers,” Cáceres said. “History shows that NASA loses if there’s only one big company they can rely on for something. The space program thrives with competition.”
NASA also could use the leverage of having two astronaut spacecraft in negotiations with Russia, he said. NASA has been purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for up to $80 million to reach the space station.
“Russia has had an ace in the hole by selling Soyuz seats to NASA, but with two providers, with Boeing, there’s no chance NASA would pay one penny to Russia for launch services again,” Cáceres said.