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NASA targets June 1st for launch of Alabama's Atlas-V rocket and the new Starliner capsule

Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket is rolled out to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41, Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will launch aboard to the International Space Station, scheduled for liftoff on May 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
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Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket is rolled out to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41, Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will launch aboard to the International Space Station, scheduled for liftoff on May 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

NASA, Boeing, and rocket builder United Launch Alliance say the new target date for the launch of the new Starliner spacecraft is June first. The gumdrop shaped vehicle is sitting on top of an Atlas-V rocket built in Decatur, Alabama. The blastoff has, so far, been delayed by an oxygen valve on the second stage of the rocket, called a Centaur, and by a helium leak on one of the thrusters on the service module beneath the Starliner capsule.

NASA engineers took extra time to examine the helium leak to see what impact the problem could have once Starliner completes its mission and starts the trip back to Earth. The capsule uses the jets, called reaction control system (RCS) jets, similar to those on the space shuttle, to begin the return from space. NASA Commercial Crew Manager Steve Stitch is in charge of Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicles provided by private industry to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. He says the team looked at how a small problem could become a big one.

“If we had the right circumstances of failures, we could lose the eight RCS jets,” says Stitch. “And so we wanted to take extra precaution to understand what could we do, if we lost those four thrusters, we've worked with the vendor of the thrusters (for) Boeing and our NASA team to come up with a redundant method to do the deorbit burn.”

Veterans of the space shuttle have observed in the past that it was rare to have unanimous agreement that a given space shuttle is completely ready to launch. Veteran shuttle launch director Bob Sieck often talked about relying on the “warm tummy feeling” that a spacecraft was ready enough to attempt a blastoff. Steve Stitch says the delays for Starliner are necessary to help ensure a safe flight.

“I've been in human spaceflight for 37 years. And there's challenges with every single flight,” Stitch observed. “There were challenges in space shuttle, there's challenges with the Orion vehicle (NASA’s new Moon capsule) that we're learning about as we flew that test flight (during the Artemis-1 rocket launch in 2022,) And there's challenges in every vehicle. So we'll work through those, those challenges one by one. I'm extremely proud of the teams they put in long hours worked over the weekend.”

The oxygen valve and the helium leak are just the latest problems to plague the new Boeing built spacecraft. 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.

Even when the Starliner crew test flight is in the record books, Alabama will still be making future contributions to the space program. The Sierra Space Company is gearing up to launch its new mini-shuttle, called the Dreamchaser. The winged spacecraft for this maiden voyage is dubbed “Tenacity.” Its job is to ferry cargo to the international Space Station. Future versions of Dreamchaser could accommodate astronauts like Starliner. The new mini-shuttle will be carried to orbit by another Alabama built rocket, called the Vulcan-Centaur. That booster will also be constructed at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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