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Boeing’s astronaut capsule on the ground for months due to valve problem

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Boeing’s astronaut capsule was on the ground for months due to valve problem.

Officials from Boeing and NASA said Friday that the Starliner capsule will be removed from the top of its rocket and returned to its Kennedy Space Center hangar for more extensive repairs.

Starliner was about to take off on a repeat test flight to the International Space Station last week, with a dummy but no astronauts, when the problem arose. A similar capsule was plagued with software problems in 2019 that prevented it from reaching the space station.

“We are obviously disappointed,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program director of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “We will do this test when we are ready to do it and it is safe to do so.”

Kathy Lueders, director of NASA’s human exploration office, said it’s “another example of why these demonstration missions are so important to us … to make sure we have the system drained before we put our crews in.”

Boeing’s performance is in stark contrast to that of SpaceX, NASA’s other contracted taxi service. SpaceX has brought 10 astronauts to the space station in just over a year, with four more expected to launch aboard the company’s Dragon capsule in late October. Elon Musk’s company will mark another first next month when it launches a billionaire into orbit with three guests, two of them contest winners.

Vollmer said moisture in the air somehow infiltrated 13 valves in the pod’s propulsion system. That moisture combined with a corrosive fuel-burning chemical that had passed the seals, preventing the valves from opening as required before the Aug. 3 launch attempt.

As of Friday, nine of the valves had been repaired. The other four require more invasive work.

Rain from a heavy storm penetrated some of the capsule’s thrusters onto the platform, but engineers don’t believe it was the same moisture that caused the valves to stick. Engineers are trying to determine how and when the moisture arrived; it could have been during assembly or much later, Vollmer said.

The 13 in question are among dozens of valves that are connected to the thrusters needed to get the capsule into proper orbit and to the space station, and also to re-enter the atmosphere at the end of the flight. All the valves worked well five weeks earlier and worked well on the 2019 test flight, Vollmer said.

Vollmer said it is too early to know if the valves will need to be replaced or even redesigned. Aerojet Rocketdyne supplied the valves, along with the rest of the powertrain.

Given all the uncertainty, Vollmer was reluctant to say when Starliner might be ready for another launch attempt. Boeing will have to avoid traffic from other space stations, as well as a NASA asteroid mission to launch on the same type of rocket from the same platform in October.

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