06 June 2024 News

NASA troubleshoots helium leaks after Starliner launch

Starliner crew launch on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 5 June 2024. Photo: NASA
Starliner crew launch on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 5 June 2024. Photo: NASA

The mission of the first crew to be launched on Boeing’s Starliner is facing multiple helium leak problems, which could at best compromise the flight’s seven-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and at worse – well let’s not go there.

Starliner’s launch from KSC Wednesday (5 June 2024) morning local time was picture-perfect and it represented the first time since the Mercury missions of the early 1960s that a crew had been launched on an Atlas family rocket.

It was a big and long-delayed moment for both NASA and Boeing and is viewed as an important stepping stone in moving the US agency closer to its goal of having two independent commercial spacecraft ferrying astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

The two crew members, veteran NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, are onboard to help verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing the environmental control system, displays and control systems, and by manoeuvering the thrusters, among other tests during flight.

After docking with the ISS they will join the Expedition 71 crew of NASA astronauts Michael Barratt, Matt Dominick, Tracy Dyson and Jeanette Epps, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Nikolai Chub, Alexander Grebenkin and Oleg Kononenko.

For Boeing, the once-vaunted aerospace contractor, the first launch of astronauts aboard Starliner came on the back of safety concerns over its workhorse 737 jetliner and was the chance to show it had overcome a series of development issues and delays with Starliner.

Helium leaks were a watchword for delays during the US Space Shuttle programme and have also caused potentially life-threatening problems from time to time with systems on the International Space Station and other crewed vehicles, including the Russian Soyuz capsule.

Mission controllers announced shortly after Starliner reached orbit that they were troubleshooting two new helium leaks in addition to the original leak detected prior to liftoff.
Helium provides pressure to the propulsion system, which is used for manoeuvring and the braking burn needed to return the astronauts to Earth. A helium leak detected prior to launch delayed the mission by several weeks but was deemed safe to fly with.

Officials stated, however, that the spacecraft was in a stable configuration and teams were pressing forward with the plan to rendezvous and dock with the ISS at about 12:15 pm EDT (1615 UTC) today, some 24 hours after launch.

NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to complete development of the Starliner spacecraft in 2014, with the goal of flying astronauts on the capsule beginning in 2017. The company first announced the spacecraft that became Starliner, then known as the CST-100, during the 2010 Farnborough International Airshow (FIA).

At the time, Boeing officials said they hoped to declare the CST-100 spacecraft operational by 2015, but the US Congress initially didn't appropriate the funding NASA said it needed to support development of new commercial crew vehicles after the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

Boeing ran into numerous technical issues, resulting in a major fuel leak during ground testing, an aborted unpiloted test flight to the Space Station in 2019, and further delays caused by valve corrosion.

A test flight in 2022, however, achieved all of Boeing's major objectives, setting the stage for the crew test flight. But in 2023 it was discovered that Boeing had mistakenly used flammable tape around wire bundles inside the Starliner spacecraft, leading to another schedule slip while this was fixed.

Engineers also found during testing that they needed to redesign a component of the capsule's parachute system, which put the crew test flight back to this year.

Thankfully for US taxpayers, NASA's contract with Boeing is fixed-price but the delays have already cost Boeing nearly $1.5 billion from its own coffers.

The Crew Flight Test of Starliner comes more than four years after SpaceX launched its first astronaut missions using its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Both companies won multi-billion dollar contracts from NASA to provide transporter craft for its astronauts as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

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