Boeing Starliner’s Crewed Launch Plans Stall Out

Not quite ready yet.
Not quite ready yet. NASA

After pushing the planned launch of Boeing Starliner’s first flight toting actual humans into orbit multiple times in this month alone, the crewed test flight has been delayed once again, according to a NASA release.

Tellingly, this time officials haven’t even set a new possible launch date although they did state that this Saturday’s launch was put on hold because engineers are still trying to resolve a helium leak on the spacecraft.

“The team has been in meetings for two consecutive days, assessing flight rationale, system performance, and redundancy,” the federal space agency stated. “There is still forward work in these areas, and the next possible launch opportunity is still being discussed.”

It's not entirely a shock that Starliner won’t be taking astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wimore to space this week. Boeing’s space capsule project has been beset with delays and other problems for years now, as we’ve previously noted, from the aborted unmanned 2019 test flight due to software issues to 2023 concerns about Starliner’s reentry parachutes and the company’s use of flammable electric tape on the space capsule that saw these first crewed test flights delayed until this year.

The flight has since been pushed back repeatedly, starting with the first attempted launch, on May 6. Williams and Wilmore were strapped into the capsule sitting atop an Atlas V rocket on a launchpad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida and two hours from liftoff when the launch was scrubbed due to a valve issue with the rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture.

The official plan was to only delay the mission for a few days while engineers dealt with the problem. However, Williams and Wilmore were sent back to Houston shortly after that first attempt, implying that at least somebody at NASA suspected that the announced plans for a May 17 launch were more aspirational than realistic.

Soon enough, NASA announced the test flight wouldn’t take place before May 21, this time because of a helium leak traced back to a flange in a thruster on Starliner’s crew module. They were only pushing the date this time around to give engineers a chance to understand the leak and figure out a plan for flying the spacecraft as-is, according to that release.

And then, a few days later, the flight was rescheduled for May 25. That time, Boeing engineers had concluded that the leak was stable and didn’t pose a flight risk, but they were still giving engineers time “to develop operational procedures to ensure the system retains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during the flight,” NASA stated in that release.

And now here we are. “NASA will share more details once we have a clearer path forward,” the most recent release concluded, in a revealing line. When NASA announced the latest delay, the space agency didn’t issue any updates on that helium leak or any other concerns or questioned that triggered pulling the launch
from the calendar.

Right now, the only thing we know for certain is that there’s currently no new launch date being offered up. But considering that Boeing’s Starliner project is years behind schedule, millions of dollars over budget, and years behind SpaceX’s commercial crewed flight success, that lack of a new date says a lot about what NASA isn’t saying.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray