Boeing's Starliner astronaut launch delayed indefinitely due to two major issues

Could this spell the end for Boeing's Starliner program?
Chris Young
Boeing's Starliner during OFT 2.
Boeing's Starliner during OFT 2.


Boeing has stood down from the first crewed launch of its Starliner capsule, which was scheduled to take place in July.

The aerospace giant cited two major issues with the capsule: problems regarding the capsule's parachute and wiring that were only discovered last week. The Starliner astronaut launch is already years behind schedule and wildly over budget and it may now be postponed indefinitely.

During a Thursday press conference, Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Starliner, said "safety is always our top priority, and that drives this decision."

Two major issues with Boeing's Starliner spacecraft

Boeing and NASA were due to launch Starliner to the International Space Station atop an Atlas V rocket with a crew of two astronauts — Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams — on July 21.

Nappi pointed out during the recent press event, which was live streamed on YouTube, that the two spacecraft problems were discovered before the holiday weekend and that Boeing had spent the holiday investigating the issues. Internal discussions with Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun ended with the company deciding to delay the mission, called Crew Flight Test (CFT).

The first issue discovered by engineers involved "soft links" in the lines that connect Starliner's parachutes. Boeing found that these weren't as strong as originally thought. While a launch could still go off without a problem, this issue reduces the redundancy of the crew capsule and it means the spacecraft might not be able to stay airborne if one parachute of the three were to fail.

Starliner was designed to still be able to slowly descend to Earth if one parachute were to fail. However, the issue with the soft links means that the remaining two parachutes might not be able to hold the strain if one were to fail.

The second, arguably more serious, issue is related to the P-213 glass cloth tape wrapped around wiring harnesses in the capsule. These run throughout the spacecraft, totaling hundreds of feet of wiring harnesses designed to protect the wiring from small scratches. During recent tests, the Starliner team found that, under specific circumstances that are possible during flight, the tape is flammable.

Could this be the end of Starliner?

According to a report by Ars Technica senior space editor Eric Berger, Boeing may now be assessing whether to cancel its Starliner program as the budget overrun means the "cost of flying those missions may be greater than any funding Boeing would have to pay back to NASA" — referring to the $4.2 billion Boeing has received so far in milestone awards.

Back in 2014, NASA contracted both Boeing and SpaceX to develop crew capsules to carry its astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX successfully carried humans to the orbital station with its Demo-2 flight in May 2020 and it is now preparing for Crew-7, its seventh operational mission not including the Demo-2 test flight.

Boeing, meanwhile, has flown two uncrewed test flights of Starliner, one of which failed to reach the ISS. When Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 did reach the space station a year ago, it looked like things might be back on track. Now, though, it is unclear when Boeing and NASA will attempt to launch astronauts aboard Starliner.

During the press conference, Nappu said it is "feasible" that the Starliner CFT mission could still launch in 2023, though he added that he "certainly wouldn't want to commit to any dates or timeframes." He also added that there have been "no serious discussions" regarding a potential termination of the Starliner program.

In a separate statement, Boeing wrote that it is now "determining when [Starliner] will be ready to launch," and that it "anticipates additional parachute testing."

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