A helium leak delays Boeing’s historic Starliner mission for at least another week

Joe Skipper/Reuters

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket stands on the pad after the launch of two astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner Crew flight test was delayed due to technical problems, at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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The world will have to wait at least another week before the highly anticipated first crewed mission of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

The launch was expected to take place on May 17 after a previous delay, but teams found a small helium leak in the spacecraft’s service module, according to the American “space” website. Statement from Boeing. Starliner teams traced the leak to a flange on a single reaction control system thruster, where helium is used to allow the thrusters to be fired.

“The teams are now targeting a launch date of no later than 4:43 PM EST on Tuesday, May 21, to complete additional testing,” the statement said.

This mission, called the Crew Flight Test, could be the last major milestone before NASA deems Boeing’s spacecraft ready for routine operations as part of the federal agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

The statement said that both Boeing and NASA are working to develop tests and solutions for the leak. Boeing plans to bring the propulsion system to its cruise pressure level just before launch and then allow the helium system to vent naturally.

Boeing said a review of data from the May 6 launch attempt showed no other issues.

NASA astronauts Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore, who are scheduled to board the mission for a week on the International Space Station, were in quarantine before the flight but returned to Houston on May 10 to spend time with their families during the pre-operational flight, Boeing said.

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Williams and Willmore will return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the coming days, according to the statement.

The event has been a decade in the making and is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft worthy of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station under NASA’s commercial program.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted in a press conference earlier this month that the launch will mark only the sixth maiden flight of a manned spacecraft in U.S. history.

“It started with Mercury, then with Gemini, then with Apollo, the Space Shuttle, then Dragon (SpaceX) – and now Starliner,” he said.

Boeing designed the Starliner to rival SpaceX’s prolific Crew Dragon capsule and will join NASA’s push to collaborate with private industry partners, expanding American options for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

On board, Williams will also make history as the first woman to join such a mission.

Development problems, test flight problems, and other costly setbacks slowed the Starliner’s path to the launch pad. Meanwhile, SpaceX, a competitor to Boeing under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has become the preferred transportation provider for the space agency’s astronauts.

The launch was scheduled for May 6, and Williams and Willmore were already in their seats aboard the Starliner capsule when engineers discovered a problem and halted the launch.

The United Launch Alliance team, which makes the Atlas V rocket, identified a pressure-regulating valve on the liquid oxygen tank that needed to be replaced. The valve has since been replaced, but the new problem is a helium leak on the Boeing spacecraft atop the rocket Causes more delay.

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If the spacecraft lifts off next week as planned, it and the astronauts inside will separate from the Atlas V rocket after reaching orbit and start running its own engines. The Starliner vehicle will likely spend more than 24 hours gradually making its way to the space station.

Williams and Willmore are scheduled to spend about a week aboard the orbiting laboratory, joining the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already on board, while Starliner remains docked outside.

The two will then return home aboard the same Starliner capsule, which is expected to land by parachute at one of several designated locations throughout the southwestern United States.

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