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NASA indefinitely delays launch of Alabama built Atlas-V rocket and the Starliner capsule

The embroidered crew patch of the crew flight test of NASA's Starliner spacecraft, powered by an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket.
Pat Duggins
The embroidered crew patch of the crew flight test of NASA's Starliner spacecraft, powered by an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket.

NASA says there will be no liftoff of an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket and the new Starliner spacecraft on Saturday. The space agency, along with Boeing who built the new capsule, and rocket builder United Launch Alliance are still troubleshooting a helium leak on one of the thrusters on the Starliner. The launch was originally delayed by a valve on the second stage of the Atlas-V rocket, called a Centaur, that started opening and closing in a fluttering fashion. Then, came the helium leak initially called “small.”

"The team has been in meetings for two consecutive days, assessing flight rationale, system performance, and redundancy. There is still forward work in these areas, and the next possible launch opportunity is still being discussed," said mission managers on the ongoing problem keeping the Atlas-V and Starliner on the ground.

White with black and blue trim, Boeing's Starliner capsule is about 10 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter. It can fit up to seven people, though NASA crews typically will number four. The company settled on the name Starliner nearly a decade ago, a twist on the name of Boeing's early Stratoliner and the current Dreamliner.

No one was aboard Boeing's two previous Starliner test flights. The first, in 2019, was hit with software trouble so severe that its empty capsule couldn't reach the station until the second try in 2022. Then last summer, weak parachutes and flammable tape cropped up that needed to be fixed or removed. The current mission is called the “crew flight test,” which means the lives of two astronauts are at risk if the vehicle malfunctions.

“Pressure testing performed on May 15 on the spacecraft’s helium system showed the leak in the flange is stable and would not pose a risk at that level during the flight,” NASA said in a press release from last Friday. “The testing also indicated the rest of the thruster system is sealed effectively across the entire service module. Boeing teams are working to develop operational procedures to ensure the system retains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during the flight.”

Despite the reassuring tone of the release, neither NASA nor Boeing are ready to commit to a new launch date.

NASA turned to U.S. companies for astronaut rides after the space shuttles were retired. Elon Musk's SpaceX has made nine taxi trips for NASA since 2020, while Boeing has managed only a pair of unoccupied test flights. Boeing program manager Mark Nappi wishes Starliner was further along. "There's no doubt about that, but we're here now."

Provided this tryout goes well, NASA will alternate between Boeing and SpaceX to get astronauts to and from the space station. Having two U.S. built ways to get people to and from the space station means NASA can send crews to the outpost even if there's a catastorphic failure of either vehicle. The 1986 space shuttle Challenger and the 2003 loss of Columbia each grounded the program for around eighteen months.

The Starliner crew is made up of veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are retired Navy captains who spent months aboard the space station years ago. They joined the test flight after the original crew bowed out as the delays piled up.

Starliner will blast off on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It will be the first time astronauts ride an Atlas since NASA's Project Mercury, starting with John Glenn when he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Sixty-two years later, this will be the 100th launch of the Atlas V, which is used to hoist satellites as well as spacecraft.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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