Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Friday launch possible for Alabama Atlas-V, despite reported arguments over the rocket

Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket is seen at Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a day after its mission to the International Space Station was scrubbed because of an issue with a pressure regulation valve, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/AP
/
AP
Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket is seen at Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a day after its mission to the International Space Station was scrubbed because of an issue with a pressure regulation valve, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

NASA, Boeing, and Alabama rocket builder United Launch Alliance are still shooting for this Friday (at the earliest,) for the blastoff of an Atlas-V. The rocket is supposed to carry a new space capsule called Starliner. That flight has been delayed since early last week because of a value issue on the rocket built at the ULA factory in Decatur. The cancellation, known as a “scrub,” meant NASA and the space agency’s supporters will have to wait to see the first test launch of the Starliner, with astronauts on board.

NASA

Published reports indicate there’s an argument among aerospace contractors about the seriousness of the so-called “buzzing” of the valve on the Atlas rocket’s second stage, called a Centaur. That's how the part's rapid opening and closing in a fluttering fashion is described. Some engineers say the problem could lead to a launch day disaster for astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams. They make up the crew aboard the Starliner and its planned docking mission to the International Space Station. The Atlas will carry the capsule part of the way to orbit, and then detach with the Centaur supplying more thrust to continue the trip.

This is the first time people have flown on an Alabama built Atlas-V. Previous unmanned launches of this this type of rocket have included the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto, the Mars InSight lander, and the Osiris Rex mission to gather rock and soil samples from an asteroid called Bennu. Ironically, if there was an unmanned payload on the launch pad last week, the Atlas might have blasted off.

Tory Bruno is President and CEO of United Launch Alliance. That’s the company that built the Atlas-V in Alabama. He says Starliner prompted engineers to load the rocket with extra safeguards and launch safety procedures that would apply if there were astronauts aboard.

“And like I said, if it were a satellite, we would have simply cycled the valve, the buzzing would have stopped, finished the count in lunged. That's not what we planned for crew mission. And so we stayed with the rules and the procedures and scrubbed as a result,” he said.

NASA
NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox

When Starliner’s launch was called off, Former Astronaut Ken Bowersox spoke with the press. He’s the Associate administrator of NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate. "Good things are worth waiting for. And we'll get a chance to see that rocket and spacecraft lift off the pad here soon," he said.

It bears noting that Bowersox commanded space shuttle Columbia on science mission in orbit in 1995. It was called STS-73, and its eventual blastoff was delayed six times because of bad weather. As tedious as that sounds, it’s not even the record for the most launch scrubs. It tied another Columbia mission back in 1986 that was delayed six times as well. STS-61C was the last shuttle to fly before the 1986 Challenger explosion that killed seven astronauts. One of the astronauts aboard that much delayed Columbia mission was then U.S. Congressman Bill Nelson. He's now NASA's top administrator.

One person who appeared ready for a delay or two is Dana Weigel, NASA’s International Space Station Program Manager. The orbiting outpost is Starliner’s ultimate destination, with the new vehicle docking on a mission scheduled to last a week or so. Weigel says the space station program knows this is a test flight and made room for the new spacecraft to make the trip.

We're not in a rush to fly from a station standpoint, we did clear our summer schedule intentionally to give us plenty of runway for the CFT (Crew Flight Test) mission,” said Weigel. “Our next docking vehicle comes up in August. So, plenty of time when CFT is ready to fly, when you will a Boeing and ULA (United Launch Alliance) give that final GO station will be ready for CFT to come on board.”

NASA hired both Boeing and SpaceX to build U.S. spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The SpaceX “Crew Dragon” capsule has ferried crews on a series of successful missions. Boeing’s Starliner, by contrast, has yet to fly a crew. Unmanned missions have been plagued with technical issues, including software problems and concerns with the parachute harnesses meant to cushion the Starliner’s descent and eventual touchdown on solid ground.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
Related Content
News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.