Boeing Suffers Setback During CST-100 Starliner Abort Test

CST-100 Starliner with Atlas V booster. (Credit: Boeing)

Media are reporting that Boeing suffered a setback recently when testing CST-100 Starliner’s emergency abort system at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here’s an account from The Washington Post:

The spacecraft Boeing plans to use to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station suffered a significant setback when, during a test of its emergency abort system in June, officials discovered a propellant leak, the company confirmed.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Boeing said it has “been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners. We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

The leak is likely to delay its launch schedule and is another setback for a program that has faced a number of problems. The trouble also comes as Vice President Pence is expected to announce the crews for the first missions during a ceremony in early August at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A sources familiar with the incident told Parabolic Arc the problem occurred with a  valve on the test rig, not on the motor itself. The problem has been addressed and did not represent a significant setback, the source added.

Pence is expected to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 2 to make the Commercial Crew announcement. Four NASA astronauts — Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams — have been working with both Boeing and SpaceX in developing crew vehicles.

On the left, NASA astronaut Suni Williams, fully suited in SpaceX’s spacesuit, interfaces with the display inside a mock-up of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in Hawthorne, California, during a testing exercise on April 3, 2018. On the right, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, Eric Boe and Doug Hurley conduct a fully-suited exercise in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner mockup trainer during early May at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Credit: SpaceX — left photo, Boeing — right photo)

However, NASA has yet to announce flight assignments for the astronauts yet. Nor has the space agency updated its flight schedules for Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Both vehicles must complete automated and crewed flight tests to the International Space Station (ISS) before they can be certified to carry astronauts on a commercial basis. Officially, the companies are supposed to conduct flights without crews to the station next month, but Pence will almost certainly announce delays when he travels to Florida on Aug. 2.

NASA officials have said they hope to get the automated flights launched by the end of the year. However, doubts have been raised about whether this goal is realistic given continued delays in the development and testing of both vehicles.

In a report published earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said NASA needs to develop a plan to assure continued access to the space station by U.S. astronauts.

The space agency has booked seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft only through November 2019. However, NASA might not certify Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon until December 2019 and January 2020, respectively, the GAO found.

One option NASA is considering is to convert the Starliner crew flight test into an operational mission by keeping the spacecraft and its crew at the space station longer than planned. The plans would create additional risks the space agency must analyze.