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Boeing switches Starliner service modules for unmanned demo flight

According to a NASA press release today, Boeing has decided to swap Starliner service modules for the capsule’s first two missions, using the service module intended for the first manned flight on the unmanned demo flight, and assigning the service module for the unmanned demo flight — which had the valve issue — to the first manned flight.

The launch schedule for these two flights is now targeting May for the unmanned demo flight and August for the first manned Starliner demo mission.

Ongoing investigation efforts continue to validate the most probable cause to be related to oxidizer and moisture interactions. NASA and Boeing will continue the analysis and testing of the initial service module on which the issue was identified leading up to launch of the uncrewed OFT-2 mission in August 2021.

In other words, though they are claiming that they have figured out the sticky valve problem in that service module, it is also quite likely that it will not be used in August 2021. I suspect they will eventually put it aside and use another service module for the manned mission, and have only said now that they will use it on the manned mission for PR reasons. It appears they are confident the valve issue is solved for other service modules, but are not yet satisfied this troublesome service module is trustworthy.

The May-August schedule is tight, but doable, assuming the May unmanned flight goes well. If the August manned demo mission also goes well, Boeing will finally be able to begin selling seats on its Starliner capsule, though I would not be surprised if it makes no sales to anyone but NASA for the next few years. Considering its problem-filled development, private users are going to be reluctant to use this capsule until it establishes a successful track record.

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5 comments

  • David Ross

    “will not be used in August 2022”, I think, unless Boeing are using tachyons now

  • They aren’t swapping. Rather, every flight is getting the service module from the flight next in line.

    OFT-2 (this mission) is now getting the service module from CFT (first crewed mission). And CFT is getting the service module from Starliner-1 (first operational crewed mission).

    Sounds like they are scrapping this problem service module (SM2). Or, as Boeing put it, “…continue longer term tests with SM2 hardware, on the vehicle and in offline facilities.”

  • Steve Golson: That’s not how I read the press release, and I read it twice. It appears for the moment they are swapping, or at least, they are selling that idea to hide the fact that, as you say, they are scrapping the service module.

  • Edward

    Robert Zimmerman wrote: “That’s not how I read the press release, and I read it twice.

    The press release certainly is cryptic. They do not explain what happened to SM3, which we would expect to be the next in line. My suspicion is that there is a design problem that is already built into SM3, so they have to skip to SM4.

    The plural in the title, “Boeing to Move Up Service Modules,” suggests to me that multiple modules are being shifted in their position. There remains a possibility that there could be a fix for SM2 and SM3, so maybe they are not headed to the scrap heap (i.e. Smithsonian display).

    Either way, it seems that Boeing and NASA now have a better understanding of these standard valves. It is not clear whether this problem is unique to Boeing’s usage or if other designs where this valve is also used will be improved in future spacecraft.

  • Jeff Wright

    So, they are giving the bad one for a manned flight.

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