Starliner Deorbit Slips Again As NASA Launches Full Review

Starliner seen docked at the ISS as it passes high over the Mediterranean. Image: NASA.
Starliner seen docked at the ISS as it passes high over the Mediterranean. Image: NASA.

NASA indefinitely postponed Boeing Starliner’s departure from the ISS, marking another setback in a bumpy flight test for the capsule, which is intended to compete with SpaceX’s crew Dragon. 

The space agency announced late Friday that the new departure date won’t be until after astronauts complete a spacewalk scheduled for July 2.

News dump: The extended stay merited an “agency-level” review of Starliner’s departure “to document the agency’s formal acceptance of proceeding as planned,” NASA’s commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said in a statement That presumably requires administrator Bill Nelson’s sign-off.  

The view from Tuesday: In a news conference June 18, Stich insisted that the vehicle was in good shape despite five helium leaks and several thruster failures. Following tests performed by astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Willmore, the agency certified Starliner for use as an escape vehicle to Earth.

 “Obviously we wouldn’t say Starliner is safe to bring a crew home in an emergency if we weren’t confident in its capability,” Stich said. 

Watch the data: Nonetheless, he said the team was taking the opportunity to carefully review test burns of Starliner’s thrusters, and further examine the cause of five helium leaks. That’s particularly important because Starliner’s service module isn’t recovered when the vehicle returns to Earth. 

Stich said the new high-level review is “similar to what was done ahead of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 return after two months on orbit.” One of the lead engineers on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program, Abhi Tripathi, suggested that circumstances were different. 

“The Demo-2 duration was primarily driven by a very specific (one-off) set of crew rotation and geopolitical considerations at that specific point in time,” Tripathi wrote in a social media post. “The demo mission durations were originally conceived to support the provider’s certification data packages. In the case of Starliner, NASA seems intent on collecting additional data for operational certification determination based on how the mission unfolds in real time.”

And watch this space: NASA said it will hold a news conference when the high-level review is complete. Good news would sure help Boeing following CEO Dan Calhoun’s tongue lashing on Capitol Hill last week. 

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