Boeing’s second chance to test the launch of his troubled astronaut capsule to the International Space Station has again been postponed, possibly until mid-2022, as NASA and the space giant re-examine issues with the spacecraft’s fuel valves.

The shift adds to the woes of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, a striking contrast to SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk. His passenger spaceship Crew Dragon has carried crews into orbit four times in the past two years, with a fifth planned for Halloween.

the Starliner capsule arrived within hours of launch to the space station with an Atlas 5 rocket in August as part of a 10-day test mission without people on board. The aim was to demonstrate that the spacecraft is safe enough to fly NASA astronauts. But some of Starliner’s fuel valves, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a rocket engine manufacturer, did not open as planned at the last minute during pre-launch preparations, causing engineers to put the rocket back in its turret and eventually the capsule back in their factory.

“We had no indication that there would be any problem with these valves,” John Vollmer, manager of Boeing’s commercial crewing operations, told reporters on Tuesday. The valves are part of an elaborate network of pipes in a removable trunk, which is known as a “service module” and which houses the Starliner drive gear. The components worked during previous tests, including a trial of the spacecraft’s emergency abort system in 2019, added Mr Vollmer.

Boeing has yet to figure out why the valves got stuck. Engineers considered rolling out an entirely new service module, but Boeing recently decided to keep the existing one, Vollmer said.

The current guess as to what caused the valve problem relates to moisture that has accumulated near some of the Teflon seals on the valves. But with no clear culprit, the company now plans to send two of the valves to a NASA center in Huntsville, Alabama for a forensic CT scan, using machines similar to those used to detect disease in humans will.

Boeing built the Starliner as part of a NASA contract valued at $ 4.5 billion. It was part of a NASA program called Commercial Crew, which aims to promote the private development of two competing space capsules that can carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX received its own contract valued at around $ 3 billion and its Crew Dragon capsule made its first unmanned flight to the space station in 2019.

Boeing’s first attempt to launch an unmanned Starliner in December 2019 could not reach the space station due to dozens of software bugs, some of which had to be repaired while the spacecraft was in orbit. Starliner would have suffered what officials called a catastrophic failure At the time, a NASA panel of aerospace security experts said that if the engineers hadn’t been able to fix some of the software problems quickly.

The company spent 18 months making about 80 corrections to both the spacecraft and the Internal safety culture of the Starliner teamas mandated by NASA, and Boeing asked for a $ 410 million fee in 2020 to re-launch Starliner for another unmanned test.

Boeing is also bearing the cost of Starliner’s recent delays, Mr Vollmer said, without saying exactly how much those costs are. “I am not expecting any indictment against the government from this party,” he said.

NASA’s security panel suggested in September that the agency and Boeing reconsider how they are investigating the spacecraft’s readiness for future flights. “We were close to takeoff without identifying the valve problem,” said George Nield, a panel member and former director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation office. He added that there were “pretty significant differences” in the way the two companies examined the issues before launch.

Mr Vollmer said his team was taking up the panel’s suggestion. “Are we going to do something else? That’s exactly what we’re looking for, ”he said, adding that engineers may decide to load Starliner’s propellant just before launch or find new ways to reduce moisture.

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