Is Boeing's Cursed Starliner Going to Be Marooned Up There?

Boeing via AP

It's a good thing the International Space Station is relatively comfy because a couple of houseguests just got their stay extended by a few extra days — again.

The crew of the Boeing Starliner's first manned flight test, mission commander Barry Wilmore and pilot Suni Williams, were informed by NASA this week that there would be another four-day delay in getting home back to Earth, now scheduled for June 26. NASA needs "a little bit more time to look at the data" behind ongoing helium leaks in Starliner's maneuvering thrusters and "do some analysis, and make sure we're really ready to come home," NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said Tuesday.

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“I would not characterize [the delay] as frustration," he added. "I would characterize it as learning.”

Oh, there must be at least a little frustration. Let me give you a quick-and-dirty rundown of all the SNAFU events before and during the Boeing Crew Flight Test (Boe-CFT). So far, that is.

  • May 6: Launch scrubbed due to a problematic valve on the Atlas V launch vehicle.
  • May 21: Launch scrubbed when a helium leak was found on a Starliner maneuvering thruster.
  • May 26: NASA is "comfortable" with the leak.
  • June 1: Launch scrubbed again due to a computer problem with the Atlas V.
  • June 6: Following a successful launch (finally!) four thrusters failed in orbit, resulting in a one-hour delay in docking with the ISS. The crew is set to stay on ISS for about a week, until June 13-ish.
  • June 11: NASA reveals four more helium leaks.
  • June 12: Starliner's return flight was delayed until June 18 due to a scheduled spacewalk, which was later called off after someone reported some kind of "spacesuit discomfort." I am not making this up.
  • June 14: Return flight delayed again to June 22 so NASA could devote more time to studying Starliner thruster issues.
  • June 18: Return flight delayed again to June 26 so NASA can have even more time to study all those issues.
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Did I miss anything? Even with several of these columns under my belt and extensive notes, it's easy to lose track. 

All of this happened a couple of years after the second unmanned flight test that revealed a heat shield that burned off in unexpected ways during reentry, a technical concern with the parachutes used for landing, and a potential fire hazard. The only reason Boeing required a second unmanned flight — at the company's expense, thankfully — was because the first one was a total failure when a software glitch caused a misfire in orbit.

Remember, Boe-CFT is just a manned test meant to iron out any wrinkles. But there have been so many that Stich said NASA hasn't "looked too much ahead to Starliner-1," the first operational (as opposed to test) flight that has yet to be scheduled. "We've got to go address the helium leaks. We're not gonna go fly another mission like this with the helium leaks."

So when Starliner does finally return Wilmore and Williams to Earth, it's going to be grounded until NASA is satisfied that Boeing has the leaks fixed — and by that time, instead of space capsules, NASA will send astronauts into space with transporter beams. 

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It seems like only two weeks ago [Steve, it was only two weeks ago —Editor] that I jokingly asked whether this Starliner mission was cursed. Now I'm convinced that somewhere there's a secret coven of disgruntled former Boeing employees with a Starliner voodoo doll, a stack of needles, a cauldron, various frog and newt parts, and an ancient book of spells devoted to orbital spacecraft.

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