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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Launch of NASA astronauts in Boeing’s Starliner is scrubbed

In a photo provided by NASA shows, a Starliner spacecraft sitting atop an Atlas V rocket, as they were wheeled to the launchpad at Cape Canaveral in Florida for a test flight in 2021. Boeing’s Starliner capsule has had a long, difficult road to human spaceflight. (NASA via The New York Times)

By Kenneth Chang

NASA astronauts were stranded on the launchpad Saturday during an attempt to ride a spacecraft into orbit that has never carried humans before. The goal of the flight was to add another spacecraft capable of carrying humans to the agency’s fleet. The vehicle, named Starliner and built by the aerospace giant Boeing, has already faced years of technical setbacks and costly delays.

Starliner was set to lift off atop an Atlas V rocket at 12:25 p.m. Eastern time from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. But a computer that autonomously manages the last part of the countdown observed something not quite right at 3 minutes and 50 seconds before the scheduled launch time, scrubbing the flight.

A flight controller declared “Hold, hold, hold,” and others worked to ensure that the rocket was in a safe state and prepared for the astronauts to disembark.

For the final four minutes, three identical computers perform the same commands for final operations, like retracting propellant lines and releasing the bolts that hold the rocket down until launch.

But one of them was slow in starting up, indicating a problem. For safety, all three computers are required to be operating properly for liftoff.

Early Saturday evening, NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance, the manufacturer of the Atlas V rocket, said they needed additional time to analyze the issue and would skip a backup launch opportunity Sunday. The next opportunities will be on June 5 and June 6.

The space agency retired its space shuttles in 2011. For nine years, astronauts could get to the International Space Station only aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. Then, in May 2020, two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, flew to the ISS in a SpaceX spacecraft, Crew Dragon. That capsule has since become the only way to get to orbit from the United States.

With a successful Starliner demonstration mission, NASA aims to have a second vehicle ready to carry crews to orbit from the United States. Here’s what you need to know about Saturday’s flight:

— Starliner had what is known as an instantaneous launch window; it must launch on time to allow it to catch up with the International Space Station.

— If Starliner still has not launched by June 6, there will be a longer delay of about 10 days to replace the batteries in the Atlas V’s flight termination system. The termination system destroys the rocket if it goes off course; in case of an emergency, Starliner’s engines would carry the capsule and astronauts to safety.

— The two crew members on board Starliner are Butch Wilmore, the commander, and Suni Williams, the pilot. They are experienced NASA astronauts, with Wilmore having spent 167 days in space, and Williams 322 days there. After liftoff, they will spend about a day in orbit before docking with the space station Sunday afternoon. They will stay for about a week, allowing for more tests of the spacecraft and its systems.

— The two astronauts were supposed to launch May 6. A problem, since repaired, with a valve on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that was to carry their Starliner capsule to orbit caused the flight to be called off after Wilmore and Williams were already on board.

— Around the time the astronauts were strapped into their seats in the Starliner on Saturday, ULA flight controllers reported a sensor issue with a valve on the launchpad that regulates the flow of propellants to the Atlas V’s second stage. The team switched to a backup system, which seemed to resolve the issue and allowed the countdown to proceed. There was also a brief problem closer to liftoff with the fans in the astronauts’ spacesuits, but Boeing engineers resolved that issue.

— Starliner itself is years behind schedule, as the work by Boeing and NASA to confirm that the spacecraft was safe to fly stretched far longer than either had expected. Technical pitfalls included inadequate software testing, corroded propellant valves, flammable tape and a key component in the parachute system that turned out to be weaker than designed, and most recently a helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system. Boeing fixed and studied the problems, enabling Saturday’s launch attempt.

— The delays have left Boeing facing more than $1.4 billion in unexpected charges. The launch attempt comes during a tough 2024 for the aerospace giant. Just days into the year, a panel on the body of a Boeing 737 Max 9 blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight. The pilots safely landed the plane, and there were no major injuries, but the episode has had widespread repercussions for the company, particularly its aviation division.

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