Boeing Starliner launch delayed again as it returns to the factory for troubleshooting

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Boeing’s Starliner astronaut capsule won’t be launching to the International Space Station until it’s gone through “deeper-level troubleshooting” to fix an issue with stuck propulsion system valves, according to a press release from the company. That troubleshooting means removing the capsule from the Atlas V rocket it’s been coupled to and bringing it back to Boeing’s facility.

The spacecraft’s initial launch attempt late last month was scrubbed hours before liftoff after engineers noticed a group of fuel valves in the Starliner’s propulsion section weren’t positioned as programmed. That valve issue, whose cause remains a mystery, is the latest engineering predicament to curse Starliner nearly two years after the capsule failed its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019.

With a clear fix to the valve issue still elusive, having to take Starliner back to the hangar will push Boeing’s plans to launch this month off the table, and a logjam of other scheduled flights could extend the delay by several months. According to Boeing VP John Vollmer, the company will “continue to work the issue from the Starliner factory and have decided to stand down for this launch window to make way for other national priority missions.” The new launch date will have to be jointly decided by NASA, Boeing, and the United Launch Alliance after the issue with the valves has been found and fixed.

Starliner’s mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2 or OFT-2, would be a roughly ten-day test mission without any humans aboard. It’s poised to launch from Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, fly to the space station, demonstrate a clean docking procedure, and stay docked for roughly ten days before returning back to Earth. It’s a do-over of its first attempt in December 2019, when a hodgepodge of software glitches prevented it from reaching the space station and forced an early return two days after launch.

Boeing has said software isn’t to blame for Starliner’s new valve problem, and indicated in past statements that it’s a more complex hardware issue. Aerojet Rocketdyne, which supplied Starliner’s propulsion system that the valves are a part of, is working with Boeing and NASA to get to the bottom of the issue.

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