This site may earn affiliate commissions from links on this page. Terms of use.

All is not well with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which was supposed to be certified and ready to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The company is heading for a crucial test flight on May 19, but a new report says Boeing is still in a dispute with supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne over who is responsible for the ship’s faulty fuel valves. The end result can be a complete system overhaul before the spacecraft is ready for crewed flight.

To recap, the CST-100 Starliner is Boeing’s contribution to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Along with SpaceX, Boeing has been tasked with building a spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle and free the United States from reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules to access the ISS. SpaceX has taken the lead and now regularly transports crews to the station. Boeing, however, encountered one problem after another as it tried to get Starliner to work.

The current sticking point is the spacecraft’s fuel valves. Of the system’s 24 oxidizer valves, 13 were stuck and not responding to commands when Boeing attempted to launch Starliner in August last year. He cleaned the launch and disassembled the hardware to check for issues, which turned out to be moisture related. Water collected in the system and reacted with the dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer to produce nitric acid, which corroded the aluminum valves.

Earlier this month, Boeing said it had solved the problem by adding additional seals to prevent water ingress, and that it had no plans to redesign the hardware. According to Reuters, Boeing is back and forth with supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne, with the two companies blaming the other for the problems. It comes as Boeing spent an additional $595 million due to delays in the $4.2 billion fixed-value contract. With each delay, the costs increase. That might explain why Boeing is so eager to fly Starliner without redesigned valves, but it’s not pretty when parts fall on the way to the launch pad.

The upcoming flight is known as Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), which is a rerun of the 2019 OFT test when Starliner malfunctioned and failed to reach the ISS. Boeing must complete that flight and then perform a crewed test flight before it can begin regular commercial crew operations. Whether Starliner has the same problematic valves at this point is now less certain. At a recent press conference, Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi admitted that a redesign of the valve is “on the table”. Boeing also told Reuters it was considering “short-term and long-term design changes to the valves.” Details will likely depend on the outcome of his discussions/arguments with Aerojet Rocketdyne.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has handled all of NASA’s crewed ISS flights with the Dragon and Falcon 9 combo. That gives NASA some leeway, but the agency clearly expected to have two operational vehicles in 2022 – the agency awarded SpaceX more launch contracts to compensate for Boeing delays, and it moved some crew from Boeing missions to SpaceX. Boeing is confident that OFT-2 will go off without a hitch, but anyone can guess how extensive the valve redesigns will be. One thing is certain though. Boeing is running out of chances to get it right.

Now read: