Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Starliner is Getting Unnerving

I was going to say Starliner is starting to get on my nerves, but it's already living there. It's starting to seriously creep me out. 

NASA and Boeing have delayed Starliner's return to Earth yet again. Originally set to have returned by now, the 18th, it was delayed four days to Saturday the 22nd and now has been delayed to next Tuesday, the 25th, "to review all available data about the performance of the Starliner spacecraft before clearing the vehicle to return to Earth." 

During a news conference on Tuesday, the program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich, said the four-day delay in the spacecraft's return would "give our team a little bit more time to look at the data, do some analysis, and make sure we're really ready to come home." 

They've been working around two hardware issues throughout the mission and really since before launch. The big one was the helium leak that started while on the launch pad and delayed the launch, yet again. Then, during the trip to the Space Station, another five helium leaks were detected. Followed by the failure of five of the vehicle's 28 reaction-control system thrusters as Starliner approached the station. 

Since then, engineers from NASA and Boeing have been studying these two problems. They took an important step toward better understanding both on Saturday, June 15, when Starliner was powered up for a thruster test.

During this test, engineers found that helium leak rates inside Starliner's Service Module were lower than the last time the vehicle was powered on. Although the precise cause of the leak is not fully understood—it is possibly due to a seal in the flange between the thruster and manifold—the lower leak rate gave engineers confidence they could manage the loss of helium. Even before this decrease in the leak, Starliner had large reserves of helium, officials said.

Maybe it's just me, but when I hear the helium leak rates were lower than the last time the vehicle was powered, I wonder if the rates will be higher than that previous rate the next time they turn it on. That is, getting worse with time instead of better. A corollary of Murphy's Law I've seen many times is "problems that go away by themselves come back by themselves." Remember Murphy's Law is one of the few laws of nature NOT documented by physicists that's as rock solid and unbreakable as the laws of physics are. 

The object of this mission is to certify the Starliner to go into regular crew rotations, and getting that certification doesn't seem be a foregone conclusion.  

The first opportunity for Boeing to fly one of these operational missions is early 2025, likely in February or March. NASA will soon need to decide whether to give this slot to Starliner or SpaceX's Dragon vehicle for the Crew-10 mission—NASA's 10th operational flight on Dragon.

That mission is being referred to as Starliner-1 now, but the question there of "do we assign the known, respected, Dragon or this new Starliner?" isn't looking like a lock for Starliner. If Dragon gets that mission, it probably pushes Starliner back six months until August or September. 

"We haven't looked too much ahead to Starliner-1," he said. "We've got to go address the helium leaks. We're not gonna go fly another mission like this with the helium leaks, and we've got to go understand what the rendezvous profile is doing that's causing the thrusters to have low thrust, and then be deselected by the flight control team."

Although Starliner's first crewed flight has challenged NASA and Boeing, Stich said the process has not been frustrating. “I would not characterize it as frustration," he said Tuesday. "I would characterize it as learning.”

Starliner arriving at the ISS on Thursday, June 6, soon to be two weeks ago. Image credit NASA TV.


  1. I've got a bad feeling about Starliner. I suspect that Boeing is going to do everything possible to send it back with the astronauts inside, but right now I'd give it a 50/50 chance of it coming back empty, with the astronauts riding a Dragon back home. A huge setback for Boeing, but maybe they need something like that to get their act back together. I'd rather see them take the hit and learn from it than see two astronauts killed .

  2. They are pushing the return back so that the Helium can leak out totally, then it's no problem, right?
    The RCS screwups are just a bonus.

    Those poor sod astronauts will deserve a medal if they choose to ride it home!

  3. "If it's Boeing, you ain't going."

    Yet again, DIE manglement lives up to all expectations, then exceeds them.

  4. They are making things worse by hiding & trying to minimize the issue, the coverup is probably worse (in the long run) than any technical glitch.

  5. For those of you that are believers, say heartfelt prayer for those two.
    Ole Grump

  6. And here are the questions I have for NASA/SpaceX/Boeing.

    How quickly SpaceX can have a CrewDragon ready for rescue?

    Does SpaceX have two astronauts ready to pilot/crew a Dragon that already have suits that fit and are willing to go?

    Can Dragon fly autonomously both to and from the ISS with two untrained passengers? (Basically treating the Starliner crew as 'cargo'. And, yes, I know Dragon can do unguided cargo to and from, but will NASA allow SpaceX to fly unpiloted with passengers, that's the question.)

    If SpaceX can get a Dragon up there, crewed or uncrewed, can they make a 'rescue suit' or some sort of integration system from Dragon-style connections to Boeing Starliner suits for the life support?

    Or can two 'passengers' just fly without connecting life support systems to the Dragon?

    Or if Boeing/NASA has some sort of external life support pack that can connect to the Boeing suits that will last long enough to bring the astronauts back? (like those 'briefcases' that Apollo astronauts had when suited up and on the way to the capsule.)

    Why speculate like this? Because I fear Starliner is a complete failure and will kill the crew if ridden back down.

    NASA needs to undock it and just drop that piece of excrement into the gravity well, maybe aiming it for the Boeing CEO's parked car...

    1. Beans, I am speculating (okay, a WAG) that SpaceX could drop everything and have a Dragon capsule in 3 to 5 days. The cargo version could possibly be utilized, I'm not sure. The big problem is the suits, they have to interconnect oxygen between suit and capsule, which is why it'll be better to fly up two empty suits! Autonomous operation is possible, the "passengers" are highly trained and would most likely do minimal piloting.
      I'm sure SpaceX is at a bare minimum considering the two hitching a ride back home, but there's no rush for now...
      Unfortunately, the odds of being able to hit the CEO's car are slim at best. Dang it.

    2. Probably the least important thing is how quickly they could get a Crew Dragon ready. The two Boeing astronauts, Wilmore and Williams, are safe where they are. If it takes a few weeks to arrange a mission it seems like the only possible issue for the ISS is going through food and miscellaneous supplies slightly faster. Cargo flights are pretty regular, maybe they send one of those up sooner.

      As for suits, I just don't know. I would hope there's a MILspec equivalent for those connections and any two manufacturers' suits would be able to hook up, like in the world of electrical connectors. I mean, if it can be done for SCUBA gear, why not space suits? I have no idea how critical the physical fit of the space suit is for that sort of rescue operation. Yeah, it's critical for space walks, and activities in the vacuum, but for sitting, strapped in for reentry? Is it just being uncomfortable or more uncomfortable than usual? They wear size Extra Large instead of their usual.

      I get the feeling, that they're coming back in Starliner. No matter what has happened, they've always said, "no big deal.? They've always said about the helium leaks that they have so much margin they just manage when they turn the valves on or off. Thrusters fail? We have more!

    3. I'm sure it's only a coincidence, but word came in late last week that NASA had ordered 10 streaming copies of Capricorn One.

      Whatever that means.

  7. Goodness Beans, bad Quality Control in action? Seems DIE is dangerous to American companies.

    It is nice to have competition in any space endeavor but nicer to have less Gov.com thumb on the scale let's use DEI companies for "diversity" vs evil capitalists who refuse DEI like Musk doing it.

    Would be interesting if NASA has to call upon the Russians to save this fiasco as per International Space Agreements. Has happened before I hear.

    Space is hard, it's harder when politics and social experiments come into play.

  8. Looks to me they launched because they had to, no more delays, lot of years late, with a problem they had not solved but understood, hoping they would be able to fudge thru what defective issues which arose.
    Aside this is not over by any means, though down hill is easier, some ways less dangerous, and lot less complex than up hill. How much can you do about lots of leaks without getting a wrench on them anyways?
    Helium gets by and thru places no other gas can, places almost unimaginable. It is a superb gas for testing weld for leaks.
    What i wonder, this is just me though, ain't no NASA engineer, why they did not substitute other inert's like argon or nitrogen for pressure? If only for one flight? Where they using helium as a part of the fuel mix? Helium is a great mixing gas in inert gas welding, particularly for AC current welding, it conducts way more current than argon, or maybe its helium is less a resistor than argon, maybe they use helium as a way to boost fuel impulse over say other inert's?

    1. Back in the mid-80s, we used helium leak detectors to check microwave antenna feed assemblies for leaks. If I ever knew, I forget if they filled them with helium in use, but I think they used dry nitrogen. These were for the big TV satellite antennas, like several meters in diameter, in those days. The use in welding is way out of my ballpark, but I think the fuel and oxidizer they use are the hypergolic (explode on contact) hydrazine/nitrogen tetroxide mix.

      That said, we get people who drop by here to read and comment who know far more than I do. As always, I appreciate being corrected.

    2. Microwave antenna feeds were filled with dry nitrogen if the power level was relatively low. For higher power assemblies sulfur hexafloride was used.

    3. These were receive only. The kind of dishes used at the cable "head end" in the early days of cable TV.

    4. Except what you point out regarding assurance you have no leaks, just from working on various weldment or braze joints helium gas testing is the pinnacle, has the smallest atom size, isn't anything else that is practical that is better. Did a stint in a class III clean room welding tube assemblies for ion transplant equipment, which employs helium gas in its operation, just amazing how tiny a leak path helium sneaks thru, it really shocked me in the beginning what it could get past. You could inspect a fusion welded joint with a 40 power loupe, , X-ray it, FPI it, high pressure test it, you can not find the defect, but helium got by somehow. So having leaks on mechanical seals is understandable, a curse if anything.

  9. I was wondering about Helium too.
    Stuff is rare and expensive.
    Using it for propulsion?

    Why not use a gas that would liquify under pressure? I know that temps would need to be taken into account but that way, you could store a lot more gas in liquid form and not have to deal with high-pressure bits and bobs.

    My druthers? Argon.

    1. The helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks for the thrusters. They use it because it's inert, and won't react with either the Monomethyl Hydrazine (the fuel) and Nitrogen Tetroxide (the oxidizer).

    2. Ahhh... Missed that part. Thank you for clarifying.
      They could still use argon - it's also a noble gas.

    3. Problem they have found with the Noble Gasses is that they aren't so noble after all. All of them show some reaction with other molecules and compounds under certain conditions.

      Helium is also not lethal in leak amounts. Some of the others can be lethal. And much more expensive.

  10. I believe I was the first to say, "Welcome to the newest permanent module of the ISS". And this totally validates my Boeing skepticism.

    1. Some channel on YouTube came up with the name Stuck Liner.

      I like it.