The Boeing Starliner flight of NASA astronauts is scrubbed

NASA astronauts will have to wait another day to orbit the Boeing Starliner. A problem with the Atlas V rocket on Monday night halted the planned launch to send them into space.

Engineers will work through the night to assess whether the two astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, can return to the launch pad on Tuesday or if repairs are needed that could delay the flight for at least several days.

It further delayed the ride for NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and the first crewed flight of Starliner, which has suffered a series of costly delays over the past several years.

About three hours before the scheduled launch time of 10:34 p.m. ET, just as the astronauts arrived at the launch pad, a valve that regulates the pressure in the oxygen tank on the rocket’s second stage began to sound at about 40 times per second. Crews on the launch pad described to air traffic controllers what they heard as an “unusually audible” sound.

Flight preparations continued as Mr. Wilmore and Mrs. Williams boarded the spacecraft. But at 8:34 p.m. ET, two hours before the scheduled liftoff, United Launch Alliance, the company that built and manages the rocket, grounded the flight.

Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, the company that built and launched the Atlas V rocket, said the behavior had been observed during some other Atlas V launches before, and opening and closing the valve usually stopped the buzzing.

But to launch astronauts, ULA had stipulated that nothing could be done to change the position of the rocket while the astronauts were there, including opening and closing a valve. It’s not a risky move, but it would have added more uncertainty.

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“Our philosophy is that we don’t have to change the position of the vehicle when people are there, so we don’t,” said Mr. Bruno said Monday night at a news conference with NASA and Boeing officials.

After the astronauts exited the Starliner and returned to their crew quarters, the valve closed and the noise stopped.

Now ULA’s engineers must determine if the valve has exceeded its design limits and needs to be replaced. If not, a Tuesday night launch is possible. But if it needs to be replaced, the rocket must be removed from the launch pad for repairs.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial team program manager, said the decision to proceed should be made eight hours before the launch time of 10:11 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

Boeing was one of two companies awarded a contract to build a shuttle to fly astronauts to the space station in 2011, years after NASA retired its space shuttles. Rockets.

Another company is SpaceX. In May 2020, two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, flew to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. That capsule became the only way to get into orbit from America.

Development of the Starliner took longer than Boeing expected. Inadequate software testing resulted in corroded propellant valves, flammable tape, and a key component in the parachute system that turned out to be weaker than designed. Boeing fixed the problems and it was finally ready for launch. The delays have left Boeing facing more than $1.4 billion in unexpected fees.

Although Monday’s scrubbed flight was caused by a rocket, the postponed launch attempt comes at a difficult time for the aerospace company in 2024. A few days a year, a panel on the fuselage of a Boeing 737 Max 9 exploded during an Alaska Airlines flight. The pilots were able to land the plane safely, and there were no major injuries, but the episode had widespread consequences for the company, particularly its aviation division.

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Niraj Chokshi Contributed report.

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