Boeing's Starliner crew capsule could finally reach the ISS next week

Though Boeing may redesign the capsule's problematic valves before a crewed flight.
Chris Young
The Starliner capsule on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V.NASA

With Boeing's next Starliner crew capsule launch attempt fast approaching, the company is considering redesigning the capsule's propulsion valves, due to issues that have so far stopped the company from launching crewed flights to the ISS and competing with SpaceX, a report from CNBC reveals.

Boeing is developing the Starliner spacecraft thanks to a roughly $5 billion contract it was awarded under NASA's Commercial Crew program. The next launch attempt, called OFT-2, is scheduled for next Thursday, May 19.

If the launch is successful, the uncrewed Starliner will then aim to dock with the International Space Station roughly a day later, on May 20.

Up until now, several issues have delayed the development and the first crewed flight of Starliner. In 2019, a software malfunction prevented the first orbital test flight from reaching the ISS after launching to orbit aboard an Atlas V N22; last August, a propulsion valve issue was noticed before the second launch attempt. 13 of the 24 oxidizer valves responsible for Starliner's movement in orbit were damaged by corrosion caused by humidity at the launch site. 

"A valve redesign is definitely on the table," Mark Nappi, Boeing's vice president and Commercial Crew program manager, said during a news conference on Wednesday, May 11. "Once we get all the information that we need, we’ll make that decision."

First, Boeing wants "to do a little more testing", Nappi said, to better understand how "these nitrates form inside" the valves, with those results guiding the potential redesign.

"We're very confident for OFT-2 that we have a system that is going to operate properly," Nappi explained.

Boeing's Starliner could finally reach the ISS next week

In spite of the ongoing issues, Boeing will make its next launch attempt during its Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), currently scheduled for May 19 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. For that attempt Boeing has opted for a temporary fix to the valve issue — it has applied a sealant over the valves.

If OFT-2 goes to plan, Boeing will then aim for a crewed flight test, though that delay may be delayed by a valve redesign, as the company would likely have to test the capsule after the redesign.

Boeing certainly has a lot of lost ground to make up. Last year, NASA reassigned astronauts scheduled to liftoff on Starliner to SpaceX's Crew Dragon. SpaceX has now launched seven human spaceflights, four of which were contracted by NASA to the International Space Station, and two of which were private launches.

If all goes to plan next week, Starliner will launch on May 19 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V at 6:54 p.m. EDT (2254 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. Stay posted for more updates on that launch.

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