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First crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi postponed due to valve issue

Boeing’s Starliner space taxi sits atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, ready for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. (ULA Photo)

The first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi was postponed today due to concerns about a valve on the upper stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. It was the latest in a years-long string of delays for what’s expected to be a milestone mission for Boeing and commercial spaceflight.

Liftoff had been set for 10:34 p.m. ET (7:34 p.m. PT) today from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. But launch managers called a hold with a little more than 2 hours left in the countdown, after NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams had already climbed into the capsule.

“The team has had some observations on an oxygen relief valve on our Centaur second stage, and the team is just not comfortable with the signatures that they’re seeing, the response out of that valve,” United Launch Alliance’s Dillon Rice said. “So, out of an abundance of caution, we are not going to continue with our launch operations today.”

The astronauts climbed out of the capsule and headed back to their quarters. Meanwhile, engineers made preparations to troubleshoot the valve issue. Mission managers didn’t immediately say when the next launch attempt would take place.

When liftoff occurs, it will be the first crewed launch on an Atlas rocket since the Mercury missions of the 1960s. But this mission will be nothing like anything NASA might have planned in the ’60s. Wilmore and Williams plan to go to the International Space Station for what’s basically a shakedown cruise in the gumdrop-shaped Starliner spacecraft.

“We have a lot to do — test it out, make sure it’s ready to go and make sure we can bring it back so more people can fly on it in the future,” Williams said in a pre-launch video clip from NASA.

NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX to transport astronauts to and from the space station a decade ago, in the wake of the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. The companies’ development costs were covered by fixed-price contracts worth $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX.

Both companies encountered challenges as they built and tested their spacecraft. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon entered service first. Crew Dragon Endeavour carried its first astronauts to the space station in 2020, and since then, Dragons have flown eight crews for NASA without a hitch. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, however, met with a series of failures during an uncrewed test mission in 2019. It took years to resolve all the glitches and safety lapses.

A re-do of the uncrewed flight test in 2022 set the stage for the crewed flight test, but NASA’s contract terms required Boeing to cover $1.5 billion in extra expenses.

Wilmore and Williams plan to spend about a week on the International Space Station doing orbital checkouts of the reusable Starliner craft — which has been christened Calypso in honor of the late ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s famous research ship.

At the end of the mission, they’ll ride Calypso back down to a parachute-assisted, airbag-cushioned touchdown in New Mexico or elsewhere in the western U.S., with the exact timing and location to be determined based on weather.

Assuming all goes well during the demonstration mission, Boeing’s Starliner will join the rotation with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for ferrying astronauts to the space station every six months or so. Although just two astronauts are on board for this test mission, Starliner is designed to carry up to seven spacefliers.

Having two types of commercial space taxis, plus Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, will significantly boost the ability to get to the space station and back. “Multiple providers provide you redundancy,” Wilmore explained.

And it’s not just about the International Space Station, which is due to go out of service in the early 2030s. Boeing and its Starliner space taxis are part of the team working on Orbital Reef, a commercial space station project that’s led by Sierra Space and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Boeing also partnered with Space Adventures years ago on a plan to send customers into orbit on a commercial basis.

This report has been updated multiple times to reflect the day’s developments.

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