Boeing Starliner valve issue may have been caused by humid Florida weather

Boeing’s Starliner capsule won’t be carrying astronauts to the International Space Station any time soon. The ill-fated spacecraft is still under investigation by NASA after a value issue necessitated the scrubbing of an uncrewed test flight in August this year. That test flight was then postponed until 2022, but NASA and Boeing officials say they are working on identifying the underlying cause of the issue.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 12, 2021.
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to be flown on Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is seen in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 12, 2021. Boeing

The problem with the valves on board the Starliner may have been caused by humidity in the launch region, according to Michelle Parker, chief engineer of Space and Launch at Boeing, and Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The Starliner was due to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but the state’s famously humid air may have caused corrosion to the valves, which caused them to stick in place, leading to the errors.

To fix this problem, Boeing could install heaters in the valve system and add desiccant material to soak up any excess moisture. Boeing officials say this should fix the majority of the valves and get them working in time for the test flight next year.

Boeing expressed confidence that the capsule would fly safely, however, the development process is already four years behind schedule and has been plagued by difficulties — including serious issues which could have led to the destruction of the craft during a previous uncrewed test flight. The current aim is to perform the next uncrewed test flight in the first half of 2022.

NASA has also rearranged the crews who were intended to fly on the Starliner’s first crewed test flight and operational mission. Astronauts Nicole Mann, who was scheduled to be on the first Starliner crewed test flight, and Josh Cassada, who will be heading to the International Space Station for a stint there, will now be traveling on the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission Crew-5 instead of the Boeing Starliner.

The earliest crewed test flight of the Starliner may go ahead in late 2022 if the uncrewed test flight goes well, with operational flights aiming to begin in 2023.

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