Boeing and NASA say the Starliner astronaut launch will go ahead despite spacecraft helium leak

In this National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awards ceremony, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is illuminated by spotlights on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41, before the NASA Boeing crew. Flight test on May 4, 2024 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Joel Kowsky | NASA | Presentation | Getty Images

Boeing and NASA are moving forward with the launch of the company’s Starliner capsule, which will carry American astronauts for the first time, despite a “stable” leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

“We are comfortable with the causes we have identified for this specific leak,” Mark Nappi, vice president and manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew program, said at a news conference Friday.

‘We know we can handle this [leak]so this is really not a safety issue,” Nappi added.

Boeing is now targeting June 1 for the first crewed launch of its spacecraft, with backup options on June 2, June 5 and June 6.

The mission – known as the Starliner Crew Flight Test – is intended to serve as the capsule’s final major developmental test by ferrying a pair of NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station before flying routine missions.

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Starliner’s crew debut has been delayed for years, with SpaceX’s competing Dragon capsule regularly flying astronauts for NASA since 2020 under the agency’s Commercial Crew program. So far, Boeing has absorbed $1.5 billion in costs due to Starliner’s setbacks, in addition to nearly $5 billion in NASA development funds.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is seen before docking with the International Space Station during the unmanned OFT-2 mission on May 20, 2022.

Boeing

NASA and Boeing canceled a launch attempt on May 6, about two hours before launch, due to a problem with the Atlas V rocket that will carry Starliner into orbit. Atlas V is built and operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

During the news conference Friday, a ULA official noted that the rocket’s problematic valve was replaced the week after the delay.

But after the launch attempt was called off, a “minor” helium leak was identified with Starliner, prompting Boeing and NASA to initiate new reviews of the capsule and its safety for the mission. NASA Associate Administrator Ken Bowersox, one of the agency’s top officials, explained to the press on Friday that “it’s taken a while before we were ready to discuss” the helium leak issue.

“It’s so complicated. There’s so many things going on. We really had to work through it as a team,” Bowersox said.

After analysis, NASA and Boeing believe the source of the leak is a seal in one of the flanges of the spacecraft’s helium propulsion system. During testing after the May 6 postponement, Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said teams “have seen no change in the leak rate.”

Stich explained that the plan is to monitor the leak leading up to launch and, after reaching the International Space Station, reassess the leak rate.

‘We don’t expect anything different [seals] to leak, and I think that’s the confidence we have,” Stich said.

Stich also highlighted that NASA has flown “vehicles with small helium leaks” before, including “a few cases” on Space Shuttle and SpaceX’s Dragon missions.

NASA, Boeing and ULA will conduct another review on May 29 to assess the leak. They plan to roll the rocket and capsule to the launch pad on May 30 for the June 1 attempt.

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