With all the news recently about relatively young rocket companies successfully flinging their founders and some actual astronauts into space, it might be surprising that the rocket company with the most experience of all still hasn’t gotten its flagship new rocket off the ground with people yet. And after yet another delay, there is now no firm date for the launch of Boeing’s Starliner.
This setback is the latest in a string of them for the aerospace giant. Some were out of their control, such as a Russian module knocking the ISS for a loop around when Starliner was supposed to launch, but many have been, including this newest delay.
The company pointed to valves in the engine that weren’t set to the right positions before the liftoff scheduled for August 4th. After ruling out software as a potential cause, the company has not yet provided any information on other causes or any timeline for implementing a fix. However, it has recently said it still hopes to launch sometime in August.
If the problem did stem from software, it wouldn’t be the first time Starliner suffered from bad code. On its original uncrewed test flight in December 2019, a software glitch caused its thrusters to misfire, leaving it without enough fuel to reach the ISS and forcing an emergency descent back to Earth. During that descent, the spacecraft experienced a “dire flight anomaly” – a euphemism for almost coming apart. It did manage to land safely at White Sands Missile Range, and Boeing’s engineers set to work diagnosing and fixing the problems.
Those problems prove that rocket science is, in fact, hard. Preliminary teething problems for a completely new rocket are not all that surprising. But Boeing is not operating in a vacuum, and its competitors, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin, have all had notable successful human flight stories of late.
Having originally been granted a NASA contract to develop human orbital capabilities to replace the shuttle, Boeing is no longer leading the pack as a rocket company. Whether or not they can catch back up to their younger, more nimble competitors remains to be seen. But this further delay is surely not a good sign.
Phys.org – Boeing Starliner launch delayed indefinitely
Space.com – Boeing’s Starliner still hoping for August launch despite technical troubles
Washington Post – 13 valves failed to open on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, a more widespread problem than previously reported
cnet – NASA, Boeing Starliner launch to ISS on hold as spacecraft investigation continues
Starliner perched atop an Atlas V rocket from ULA.
Credit – Boeing