NASA Delays Inaugural Crewed Mission of Boeing Starliner Spacecraft

The launch of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft’s first crewed mission has been postponed by NASA until at least the summer of 2023. The Starliner capsule was supposed to launch in April 2023, but last-minute tests and technical debates prompted the postponement. The launch of the crewed mission is important for Boeing’s space unit. This is because it is the last test flight of the spacecraft before it joins SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule as the second NASA-approved means of transportation into orbit.

The Starliner mission will debut after a private astronaut flight planned for May. This is going to enable teams to evaluate readiness and finish work on the spacecraft’s verification, as per NASA’s space operations head Kathy Lueders. Lueders did not go into additional detail regarding the delays’ causes, though.

The delay is a result of additional testing that Boeing and NASA conducted on several components of the spacecraft. The manual flying system for Starliner is being tested by Boeing software engineers. It will serve as a fallback in case the automated flight software for the spacecraft malfunctions. “Added redundancy in instances of emergency” is the testing’s main objective. It took longer than anticipated to discuss the minimal likelihood that the spacecraft’s mission-critical lithium-ion batteries may overheat during docking to the station. The safety of the mission-critical lithium-ion batteries was also discussed.

Boeing’s decision to proceed with the mission was opposed by the chief safety officer of the space station and representatives from NASA’s astronaut office. During a recent pre-flight technical discussion, Boeing and NASA officials expressed concerns regarding the batteries. The likelihood of a battery malfunction endangering the crew was low. However, NASA officials finally came to the same conclusion as Boeing and other federal space agency personnel. Boeing is currently thinking about redesigning batteries and developing a strategy to add shielding in the event that one overheats.

Boeing has been faced with an expanding to-do list of tests and redesigns. This comes before the eagerly anticipated operational phase of its NASA contract. A $4.5 billion deal secured in 2014 has allowed NASA to oversee the development of Starliner. An initial, unmanned Starliner test flight was aborted due to about 80 software errors in 2019. However, a successful follow-up mission was completed in 2022.

Additionally, Boeing is looking to modify the system that separates the main crew module of the Starliner spacecraft from its service module, a trunk component that houses thrusters that are ejected prior to the spacecraft’s return to Earth. Boeing will receive at least $24.8 million from NASA for the system upgrade.

The batteries for the Starliner have not caused Boeing any problems during testing. However, there have been some controversies on how a possible battery failure could spread to adjacent cells. The Starliner battery issues and anticipated improvements would be added to the ever-growing list of tests and redesign Boeing has to complete before the operational portion of its NASA contract.