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NASA’s Starliner launch delayed until Wednesday at the earliest


NASA, Boeing, and Alabama rocket builder United Launch Alliance are troubleshooting what went wrong Saturday morning, when the planned liftoff of the new Starliner space capsule aboard an Alabama Atlas-V rocket was halted less than four minutes before engine ignition. A computer called Ground Launch Sequencer handles all the things that go into the blastoff. It was that system that stopped the countdown. Launch managers are looking to the cause.

The last minute computer trouble was just latest in a string of delays over the years. Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams had to exit the capsule and head back to the crew quarters near the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It was the second time they suited up for the first ever blastoff by astronauts aboard an Alabama built Atlas-V that normally carries satellites and deep space probes.

Astronaut Michael Fincke was at both scrubbed launch tries. He’s the back-up crewmember for the Starliner mission and is scheduled to join two crewmates on the second flight of the new capsule. Scrubbing a blastoff means a series of things happens. Launch controllers swing an access arm back to the capsule so the astronauts can leave the vehicle. They carry small duffles called helmet bags. Fincke recalls how that played into Williams and Wilmore’s first scrub last month.

“It was kind of funny because I met them right at the Astro van,” said Fincke. “We said a few joking words and then, I asked Butch if I could carry his helmet bag and he said nope.”

Technicians raced to the pad to help astronauts Wilmore and Williams out of the capsule atop the fully fueled Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Within an hour of the launch abort, the hatch was reopened. Fincke says after leaving the rocket, the crew rides back for their quarters in a vehicle called the “AstroVan.”

“They get out of their suits and then they go back to their rooms at the astronaut quarantine facility or crew quarters and they take a quick shower get get refreshed," said Fincke. "Then find out what the what the plan is.”

That plan, assuming that NASA, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance can resolve whatever issue caused Saturday’s scrub, could mean another launch try by Wednesday at the earliest. After that, there’s another opportunity on Thursday. If both of those chances fails, the delay could be lengthy. The Atlas-V rocket would likely be rolled off the launch pad so fresh batteries could be swapped out on the launch stack. That might mean mid to late June for the next chance at liftoff.

NASA wants a backup to SpaceX, which has been flying astronauts since 2020.

Boeing should have launched its first crew around the same time as SpaceX, but its first test flight with no one on board in 2019 was plagued by severe software issues and never made it to the space station.

A redo in 2022 fared better, but parachute problems and flammable later caused more delays. A small helium leak in the capsule's propulsion system last month came on top of a rocket valve issue.

More valve trouble cropped up two hours before Saturday's planned liftoff, but the team used a backup circuit to get the ground-equipment valves working to top off the fuel for the rocket's upper stage. Launch controllers were relieved to keep pushing ahead, but the computer system known as the ground launch sequencer ended the effort.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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Related Content
  • An Alabama built rocket is maybe days away from making space history. The Atlas-V is set to carry two astronauts and a new NASA space capsule called Starliner. Not even the astronauts know how it will go.
  • NASA is planning to launch its newest spacecraft, called Starliner on Saturday, if all goes well. The gumdrop shaped vehicle is sitting on top of an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket. Engineers have been troubleshooting a helium leak on one of the Starliner’s jet thrusters. The mission is also notable because no astronauts have ever flown on an Alabama built Atlas-V. This type of rocket was reserved, in the past, only for unmanned payloads like satellites and deep space probes. No astronauts have flown on rockets of this type since Project Gemini in the 1960’s that paved the way for the Apollo manned moon landings. John Glenn was one.
  • NASA is preparing for a planned May launch of an Atlas-V rocket, built in Alabama. The booster is set to carry the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space capsule to the International Space Station. Once the vehicle docks with the orbiting outpost, there will be a meeting of two “penguins."
  • APR's Pat Duggins had the chance to talk with NASA Astronaut Bob Hines. The veteran crew member of the International Space Station's Expedition 67 is only the second University of Alabama graduate to fly in space. Two time Space Shuttle pilot James Kelly is the other. Astronaut Hines is on campus for UA Space Days this week. Duggins began his conversation by asking the NASA veteran what inspired him to pursue a career in space.
  • An Atlas-V rocket, built at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur, is on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Its job is to carry two astronauts aboard the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft to orbit. A successful mission will add astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry "Butch" Wilmore to an elite group of people to have flown on three types of space vehicles.
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