How Corrosive Fuses Delayed Boeing Starliner’s Launch

How Corrosive Fuses Delayed Boeing Starliner’s Launch
How Corrosive Fuses Delayed Boeing Starliner’s Launch

Boeing claims that the launch of its new Starliner spacecraft was delayed this summer due to excessive water and moisture causing the aircraft’s valves to stick to the aircraft’s nose. The company plans to study the complex valves in detail and implement design changes in the coming months. The Starliner is expected to launch again in mid-2022.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is a new passenger spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station for a NASA business team project. However, NASA wants Boeing to launch a successful flight before the Starliner can carry a crew.

But Boeing’s attempts to launch an unmanned Starliner hit some speed bumps along the way. The company rolled out the vehicle without a team for the first time in December 2019 but a series of software glitches prevented the spacecraft from reaching the proper orbit needed to meet the International Space Station, and flight controllers were forced to return the craft earlier than planned. Boeing hopes to try again in early August 2021, by launching another empty Starliner. But a few hours before the lift, the company used several Starliner valves to hold the oxidizer – an important thruster for the plane – not in the correct alignment.

In today’s update, Boeing officials said 13 of the 24 oxidation valves were not working properly and were stuck in the wrong position. While the Starliner was on the launch pad, Boeing was able to fire nine of the 13 stick valves, but four of them did not move properly. That prompted the Boeing Starliner to head back to the factory for a closer look. Since then, engineers have loosened all three valves, which helped figure out what happened.

Before the launch of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
Photo by Greg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Parker, Boeing’s vice president and chief engineer, said at a press conference Tuesday:

Ultimately, Boeing believes that some of the oxidizers inside the valves have already escaped. The valves are sealed with Teflon and, according to the company, the oxidizer has been known to occasionally penetrate the Declon material. Boeing said Teflon was “chosen because it is compatible with antioxidants,” not other sealants. The theory is that when the antioxidants leak, they mix with excess moisture and moisture at the launch site, causing the valves to corrode slightly. Why couldn’t Boeing valves move this wear at will?

Since the launch delay, Boeing claims to have fired 12 of the 13 clogged fuses using a combination of extra heat and high voltage. Meanwhile, the Starliner team has deliberately shut off a valve as they decide what kind of repairs they can put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Additional heaters can be added to the valves. In addition, Boeing removes the two valves and sends them to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where they will perform CT scans for more accurate analysis.

Perhaps most troubling is that Boeing still does not understand why the problem does not appear in front of the plane. The company says engineers ran a number of tests on the valves before the car was on the dashboard, and the instrument worked as expected. “We have no indication that these valves will experience any problems,” said John Walmer, Boeing project manager at Starliner.

If it flies on a Boeing Starliner in the middle of next year, the company hopes to fly the vehicle with its first passengers by the end of 2022.[Our objective] We need to get back on the plane safely — and I insist we are safe — as soon as possible,” Walmer said. “So everything we’ve done so far, the path we’re on, will help us reach that goal and get back to flying safely.” Meanwhile, NASA’s other business suite provider, SpaceX, has already begun sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station, with another scheduled for October 31. When the Starliner begins flying, SpaceX plans to fly once a year and Boeing once a year.

When asked what would have happened if the Starliner had been launched with sticky valves, Boeing said such a situation would never have happened because flight controllers had to check the valves before flight. “This is one of the things we absolutely need to work on, otherwise we wouldn’t be flying,” Woolmer said. “So, that’s not a problem, if we had started and we hadn’t been aware of it. We know these valves will be in perfect condition before we even begin.

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