Why it matters: NASA needs two flights to reach orbit.
To get to and from the space station, NASA currently relies on SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk. SpaceX launched its first crew of astronauts into orbit aboard its Dragon capsule in May 2020, and has since sent eight more astronauts to the space station.
But NASA also hired Boeing to build a capsule so that one can serve as a backup if the other fails.
“NASA desperately needs a second crew transportation provider,” Steve Stich, the agency’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, said in a news release Thursday.
Background: What happened after the space shuttle program.
NASA used to rely on the space shuttle to transport astronauts to and from orbit. When those vehicles were decommissioned in 2011, the agency had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, and has done so for nearly a decade.
To regain its autonomy, the agency launched a program called Commercial Crew, which will rely on private companies to build spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts on NASA missions. Additionally, NASA will be a customer of these companies, paying for rides in the vehicles, rather than owning them outright like the Space Shuttle.
SpaceX is one of those suppliers, Boeing is another.
Boeing’s Starliner capsule has twice reached orbit without astronauts. The first flight took place in December 2019 and was intended to precede a flight with astronauts on board. But a series of software errors in space jeopardized the flight, leading NASA to label it a “high-visibility hazard” following an investigation.
A second unmanned flight in May 2022 was more successful. But it was supposed to happen in August 2021. Before that flight, engineers discovered that a valve in the Starliner’s propulsion system was stuck, and the vehicle had to be recalled from the launch pad and sent back to the factory for repairs.
Technical issues have been a burden for Boeing Reported loss of $883 million Used in vehicles until October 2022.
But the company said it hasn’t given up on plans to build the Starliner.
“There’s more and more pain in developing the vehicle and driving the vehicle — we’re really close,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing vice president and Starliner program manager. “It’s just a part of the business that has issues like this.”
What’s next: Boeing and NASA will review repairs.
Mr. Stich said it was possible that Starliner could visit the space station this fall, but that would depend on how quickly the parachute and wiring issues were resolved.
After re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the Starliner capsule returned gently to Earth under the action of three parachutes. Engineers found that if only two of the three parachutes deployed correctly, part of the wire connecting the spacecraft to the parachute would not be able to withstand the load from the capsule.boeing says in a statement It expects to conduct a parachute test before scheduling another launch attempt.
The wiring problem involved hundreds of feet of tape wrapped around the Starliner’s internal wiring. In some cases, tape adhesives may be flammable. Mr Nappi said engineers were considering another way to wrap the tape in areas of greatest fire risk.
“You could say we’re disappointed because it means a delay,” Mr Nappi said. “But the team is proud that we made the right choice.”