NASA and Boeing Set June 1 Launch for Starliner Crew Test After Propulsion System Fixes

NASA and Boeing have announced plans to proceed with the first crew test flight of the Starliner spacecraft, tentatively scheduled for June 1, following detailed analysis of recent issues. This decision comes after weeks of investigating a helium leak and identifying a design flaw in the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

The helium leak, pinpointed to a flange on a reaction control system thruster in the service module, initially raised concerns when its leak rate spiked following a countdown scrub in early May. Boeing engineers determined that the issue was likely due to a defective rubber seal, causing a small, stable leak. Despite this, extensive reviews concluded that even if the leak worsened, it would not pose an unacceptable risk during the mission.

In addition to the helium leak, engineers discovered a design vulnerability in the propulsion system that could prevent the spacecraft from performing a crucial deorbit burn. This flaw, found in certain failure scenarios, lacked redundancy for executing the burn safely. The team quickly developed a workaround to mitigate the risk, involving an alternative deorbit burn method using fewer thrusters.

Boeing’s Mark Nappi reassured that the identified issues are extremely remote and have been rigorously analyzed and addressed. He emphasized the robustness of the review processes moving forward.

NASA’s Steve Stich clarified that the design vulnerability issue was not identified during previous oversight reviews and expressed confidence in the readiness of the spacecraft for the upcoming mission. He mentioned that the next crew test flight will involve NASA commander Butch Wilmore and pilot Suni Williams, who are currently in pre-flight medical quarantine.

The flight test readiness review is scheduled for Wednesday, with a potential launch on June 1 or subsequent dates. If successful, this test flight will pave the way for crew rotation flights to the International Space Station, alternating between Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Despite the challenges, both NASA and Boeing are optimistic about resolving the remaining issues and proceeding with the planned launch, pending final approvals and checks during the countdown on June 1.