Saturday, August 14, 2021

Boeing Grounds Starliner for Foreseeable Future

Boeing's Starliner Updates site yesterday posted an update that Starliner is being returned to the factory for troubleshooting and the second test flight is off until further notice.  The notice in its entirety reads:

Today, Boeing informed NASA that the company will destack its CST-100 Starliner from the Atlas V rocket and return the spacecraft to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) for deeper-level troubleshooting of four propulsion system valves that remain closed after last Tuesday’s scrubbed launch.

Starliner has sat atop the Atlas V rocket in ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility since August 4, where Boeing teams have worked to restore functionality to the affected valves.

The relocation of the spacecraft to the C3PF will require Boeing, NASA and United Launch Alliance to agree on a new launch date once the valve issue is resolved.

“Mission success in human spaceflight depends on thousands of factors coming together at the right time,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “We’ll continue to work the issue from the Starliner factory and have decided to stand down for this launch window to make way for other national priority missions.”

Starliner while still on the Atlas V launch vehicle in the Vertical Integration Facility.  Boeing photo.

The delay seems to be entirely the right thing to do.  The message they Tweeted was much shorter (I assume due to Twitter limits) but said they're "standing down to make way for other national priority missions."  

Those familiar with the schedules for the rest of the year are saying that the most likely time frame to try to schedule for is February of 2022, and even that is daunting.  That depends on Boeing finding the root cause of the valve issue, identifying a fix, implementing it, and successfully testing it.

Eric Berger, space correspondent for Ars Technica offered this input:

Over on Ars Technica, Eric reports a possible root cause:

According to Vollmer, some of the NTO leaked through seals on the valves. Such leaks are well understood from a physics standpoint, Vollmer said. But then this oxidizer combined with some unanticipated ambient moisture in the cavity around the valve, and this resulted in corrosion that prevented the valves from opening properly.

It is not clear how this moisture got into the spacecraft. While there were thunderstorms when the vehicle was on the Florida launch pad in early August, the ambient moisture did not come from those storms. It could have been due to the humid Florida atmosphere, however. This is one of the issues that Boeing must now investigate alongside engineers from NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which manufactured the spacecraft thrusters.

If this is from needing better protection from humidity or more waterproofing, that means it's a hardware problem and not software which is probably better for everyone.  The running joke in the hi-rel avionics world when I left it was that the attitude used to be "fix it in the software" until that resulted in so many fusterclucks that it became cheaper and easier to "fix it in the hardware".   There are whole industries dedicating to torturing hardware to verify it will survive the worst possible "real world" conditions. 


  1. Wow. So Boeing has figured out they've got some serious issues going on.

    I think it's time, like the guy from The Angry Astronaut says, to go, hat in hand, to Sierra Nevada and see about man-rating their Dreamchaser space plane (which Sierra Nevada has continually worked on even after being de-selected for man-rated space flight, with Boeing winning their slot.)

    Geez. Can Boeing do anything right anymore? Will anyone trust them anymore? They used to be the cream of the crop and now? Legacy Aerospace design-by-committee moving at glacial speed. What, SpaceX designed, created, tested and flight-certified Dragon, Dragon2, CrewDragon in the time that Boeing designed and has launched 1 failed unit that they almost didn't recover?

    What the heck?

    Ditch Boeing. Now. Quit throwing money and time down that hole.

    And on an interesting note, I've been watching The Everyday Astronaut's three-part interview and tour of Starbase with Elon Musk as the interviewee. Very fascinating, especially in the first segment where Elon talks about his design philosophy, which isn't anything dealing with engineering-by-committee. His way? Question everything, including the question. Anything must have a person's name attached to it, whether it be a new part or a new system or eliminating a part or a new system. Everything must be pared down and under-complicated. Musk talks about how in Legacy Aerospace you'll have a team working to refine for years an idea that was suggested by an intern who is no longer with the company for a situation that, in hindsight, didn't need to be engineered in the first place and by the time a highly over-engineered fix or component is finished, nobody knows why that part or fix was needed in the first place.

    Absolutely amazing interview. Tim from the webchannel even suggests something to Elon and you can see Elon's brain firing and his eyeballs bouncing around like a pachinko ball and you know within an hour or so some change-order or design-order is going to totally sideline a whole series of production models.

    Now THAT'S engineering!

    (first episode of the 3-part series is here: )

    So, well, Boeing? Yeesh. How much more screwed up can they get?

    1. I watched that episode and have been telling myself to watch the other two and put up a summary. Really good stuff.

      "Compared to manufacturing, the engineering cost rounds to zero" (not a direct quote from Musk, but the essence of it).

      "The biggest mistake designers make is to optimize something that shouldn't be there"

      "Everyone is wrong sometime" (I used to tell the new grads I was helping 'I reserve the right to be wrong; I try not to be, but I still screw up.' I wanted to encourage them to push themselves and not be afraid of making a single mistake.)

      A lot of great stuff in there.

    2. "an idea that was suggested by an intern who is no longer with the company for a situation that, in hindsight, didn't need to be engineered in the first place "
      Maintenance was replacing a light curtain on a press with the totally wrong part they ordered as a replacement. I spent all Friday reengineering the safety network and power supplies to make it work.
      Then I asked why we did this.
      Somebody had complained that the light curtains should have been taller and no one challenged the notion because "safety".

    3. Also, Musk emphasized that Design and Prototyping is easy. It's serial manufacturing that is the real issue. That and support equipment.

      He stated the reason they're not trying to catch the first true Booster and Starship is because SpaceX doesn't want to potentially lose all of that precious ground support equipment they've spent so long building.

      And he confirmed that they deliberately blew up Starship prototypes because there's no place for any of them when they are done with their testing cycle.

      (Though, now that I think of it, what a way to make housing on Starbase. Cut out all the tankage and put in flat levels, insert windows and doors, add lots of insulation and air conditioning and stairs and plumbing. Each level would be roughly 650 square feet and you could easily put, what, 4-5 levels in a dead Starship? And the cool factor...)

  2. How did moisture get inside? Some one washed it. They never heard of rain

    1. It's a funny thing, Boeing saying it wasn't the "gully washer" thunderstorms but humidity. Humidity is one of Florida's main exports. If you're building something that's going to be outside, you'd better expect humidity.

    2. Kind of like building an SRB for potential launches from California where 30% of the potential launch time was cooler than the o-rings could handle?

      Yeah, Top Men. TOP MEN.

      Idiots. And it's not like humidity isn't an issue in the Pacific Northwest.

  3. My father-in-law used to work for one of those testing labs, in Seminole, FL. He used to say, "you make it, I'll break it".

    1. I think I know that outfit. Can't think of the name, but I always heard the line, "You make, we'll break it. Guaranteed."

    2. ECI, which became E-Systems. And, thinking on it, I think it was technically in St. Petersburg.

  4. Boeing has shat in their mess-kit. They have screwed up the Starliner, 737 Max, KC-46 and who knows what else. How much do they figure in the problems of ULA and the HLS Americas Team? McDonald-Douglas failed, was taken over by Boeing and then MD took over Boeing -- Failure Theater. I saw this happen at a division of LM I worked for 20 years ago.

    I watched all three parts of Tim Dodd's tour of SpaceX Boca Chica and interview with Elon Musk. I was a Systems Engineer at LM using the Old Aerospace development model; I even have a Masters Degree in the discipline. I was totally fascinated by SpaceX's (read Elon's) developmental model. But he did temper it in the case of Dragon (all models) because the work was being done for the Government; they did not use the build-fail-improve-fail-improve...-succeed model that is employed on Starship/Super Heavy. Illustrative of this is the fact that Booster 3 is being disassembled at the Launch Complex. They are cutting it apart right now as I type this.

    I did like a statement from Elon in the last part of the series. Paraphrasing him, it is an imperative that we make mankind multi-planetary now or it will never happen. That was in reference to the break-neck pace that the Starship program in moving ahead.

  5. I'm trying not to laugh. I mean, watching a venerable old company self destruct is always sad, but they have planes that can't fly, and rockets that can't fly now, too. But, hey, check out the quarterly profits!

  6. Previous hypergolic oxidizer valves were ball valves with a gravity drain port and could aspirated when to remiv residual oxidizer and any moisture. Do the starliner valves not have this feature?

  7. If these valves do not have this feature, shame on the engineers.

  8. Unknown - A good example of your observation are the propellant valves of the Apollo Service Module SPS engine. There is a tremendous amount of information which can be learned by reading historical documents of the Apollo program. Not sure much of that valuable information has been passed to the current generation of designers.