Security concerns Boeing Starliner grounded indefinitely

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is grounded indefinitely due to safety issues with the capsule’s parachutes and wiring.

The anomalies, discovered last week, were discussed during a press conference Thursday evening, during which NASA and Boeing announced that the first planned crewed flight of the Starliner was suspended.

That launch, which faced many delays and setbacks, was scheduled for July 21 to the International Space Station (ISS). Now officials aren’t sure if it will take off at all this year.

“It’s doable, but I certainly wouldn’t want to commit to any date or time frame,” Mark Nappi, program manager and vice president of Boeing Starliner, told reporters Thursday. “We need to spend the next few days figuring out what we need to do to fix these issues.”

Two major safety issues were discovered during preliminary inspections of the vehicle last week. The first concerns the Starliner’s three main parachutes. Engineers have discovered that the “soft links” used on slide suspension lines have a lower tensile strength limit than previously thought.

Tests revealed that if one of Starliner’s parachutes were to fail, the other two would be unable to support the capsule’s weight. According to Nappi, one of NASA’s safety requirements is that the capsule must be able to land safely with only two parachutes.

Boeing engineers also discovered that the protective tape covering the capsule’s wiring is flammable. Nappi said there are hundreds of feet of this tape throughout the capsule. To that end, Nappi said the team is looking into ways to mitigate damage to the spacecraft that could result from removing all of this tape.

“We are looking into solutions that essentially provide another type of wrap over existing tape in the most vulnerable areas that reduces the risk of fire,” he said.

NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said the entire team is feeling the pain of another delay.

“I would say everyone is a little disappointed,” Stitch said during the press conference. “But you might see people ready to roll up their sleeves and go see what the next steps are.”

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is one of two capsules built by commercial companies as part of NASA’s commercial crew program to carry astronauts to and from the space station. The other, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, launched seven crewed flights for NASA plus three additional privately crewed missions for customers like Axiom Space.

Due to the nature of the contract awarded, Boeing will likely be responsible for any costs associated with vehicle modifications and any costs due to delays.

Boeing has awarded at least seven crewed flights for NASA, including this first crewed test flight, which will see NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore fly to the space station to make sure Starliner has what it takes to fly regularly the crew. Nappi says that despite multiple delays and additional costs, Boeing remains committed to the Starliner spacecraft and its obligations to NASA.

“We talked about the future of Starliner and how we’re going to move forward,” said Nappi. “We know that there are growing difficulties in the development of vehicles and flying vehicles. … This is just part of the business to have these kinds of problems.

Boeing and NASA should continue to evaluate the vehicle and determine how long it will take to correct these issues before announcing the next possible flight date. Traffic at the space station is heavy this summer, with a likely opening in the fall if teams can get the vehicle ready by then.

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