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Boeing to take Starliner apart, remove two valves

Boeing has decided to take apart the Starliner capsule intended for its second unmanned demo flight to ISS to do a close inspection of two of the troublesome valves that caused the launch in August to be scrubbed.

The current guess at what caused the valve issue involves moisture that accumulated near some of the valves’ Teflon seal. But without any clear culprit, the company now plans to ship two of the valves to a NASA center in Huntsville, Ala., for a forensic CT scan, using machines similar the ones used on humans to detect diseases.

This action now means that the next launch attempt will likely be delayed until the middle of ’22.

The delay is costing Boeing money, not NASA, as the contract is fixed price and Boeing will not get paid additional money until it meets its next milestone, which is a successful demo flight to ISS.

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  • Edward

    Scott Manley hat a comment about this: (16 minutes)

    He also examines the alternative proposals for Starliner’s mission.

  • wayne

    Good stuff.!
    My only complaint with Manley is his shows aren’t 2 hours long.

  • Edward

    My brother does not mind that they are only around a quarter-hour long, as he generally does not have much more time than that to watch even the interesting videos. He is also the reason why I started including video length when sending him links or posting a them in comments like these. This way, if it is a long video, he can wait until he has time to watch it.

  • Andi

    Small edit in first paragraph: “take apart”

  • sippin_bourbon

    Sad to see. I was really hoping they would get it together. Seeing multiple vehicles, having real competition and some redundancy would have been nice to have by now.

    My cynical view is that there are still some in congress that would kill commercial crew and tax commercial space ops into the ground if they could, if only for control. Unbridled capitalism scares them.

  • Steve C

    Why in the world has it taken this long to decide to take apart the capsule? It should have been ripped apart and diagnosed as soon as it got pulled off the pad. Instead they use a torch and hammer on the valves trying to unstick them like they were the steam pipes in a tenement apartment. I would not fly in this capsule. I do not trust Boeing.

  • Edward

    Steve C asked: “Why in the world has it taken this long to decide to take apart the capsule? It should have been ripped apart and diagnosed as soon as it got pulled off the pad. Instead they use a torch and hammer on the valves trying to unstick them like they were the steam pipes in a tenement apartment. I would not fly in this capsule. I do not trust Boeing.

    Having been involved in situations similar to this: Nothing being done to Starliner is done in haste. Even unmanned spacecraft with similar problems will take time and careful thought and research before major repairs are made. Boeing is clearly being careful to keep their spacecraft safe while solving a mystery. Rapidly ripping apart the spacecraft without careful thought may be unnecessary, as they have done a few other solutions to other valves without having to rip apart the spacecraft. Sometimes one solution does not work everywhere (it isn’t always one-size-fits-all, as we have in the U.S. healthcare system).

    Before going to extremes we tend to try easier, faster, less invasive methods first. Carelessly causing delays and expense is undesirable. The objective is to get Starliner flying as soon as possible while making sure it is safe. As reported shortly after the problem was discovered, some valves were able to open sooner than others, which does not necessarily mean that the problem was solved in those valves.

    Boeing is so conscious of safety that they are willing to burn through a lot of money that they had hoped would be profit. The delay means that they are losing potential revenues from other non-NASA sources — revenues that SpaceX is already receiving. Boeing has been in the human transportation business for a long time, and they are not as careless as some seem to think.

    I keep thinking about what Boeing is doing on this issue. Their plan to examine the valves suggests that they have had difficulty attributing the moisture to causes other than the valves. Otherwise they would not spend the better part of a year just to examine the valves.

    Another possibility is that they have decided that merely getting the valves operational again is not safe enough and the valves must be replaced. Their intention to examine the valves may be an attempt to further understand these valves rather than to just find a solution to this particular problem.

  • Edward noted: “Boeing is so conscious of safety . . . ”

    I have worked on Boeing property as a contractor, and Boy Howdy, are they safety-conscious. I think it’s a good idea to go home with what you came to work with, but I got burned on (what I thought) was a minor infraction. Only my relationship with the liaison engineer saved me. You could be banned for something as simple as not putting your hand on a stairwell handrail (‘three points of contact’). Intel is more so: every contractor must spend a full 8-hour day training on their safety procedures. Oh, yeah, there’s a drug test at the end.

    Machines don’t care. The safety-oriented approach is a very good idea.

  • Blair Ivey: Being so focused on safety to the point of punishing people for not using a handrail on stairs is a perfect example of missing the forest for the trees. Your description makes me less confident in Boeing. They are not focused on getting the important things right.

  • Robert: I will defend Boeing’s approach to safety. It wasn’t the sole company focus. That would be, I hope, building aerospace devices (and the factories are oh, so, cool). More a fundamental part of corporate culture, like John Wooden teaching players how to put on socks. I cannot speak to Boeing management or performance; just a flavor of working on-site.

  • Blair Ivey: Well, you were there and I was not. Nonetheless, looking at it as an outsider, I remain unimpressed. If the Boeing management, which we both know has the job to set the tone, was so interested in safety than Starliner would not have seen the many issues it has seen, far more then it should have. More important, the company would have been able to get those problems resolved much faster.

    My skepticism is not just fed by the Starliner situation at Boeing. The company has had similar safety issues with its 737 that actually killed people. That plane should not have been flying. It was not ready.

  • Steve C

    Edward My comment was not about Boeing taking time and consideration, My point is that their approach is totally wrong. We have critical valves on a man rated capsule that have failed for unknown reasons. It doesn’t matter if they can get the valves knocked loose, they failed! Those parts should not fly! The valves need to be examined in situ, not repaired. Then they need to be ripped out and closely examined until the problem is thoroughly understood and resolved. Then, all the valves should be replaced with the corrected part, including the valves that did not fail in the first place. Hammering on a sticky valve is fine for a farm tractor on the back 40. It is not appropriate for a space craft.

  • Edward

    Steve C,
    You wrote: “Edward My comment was not about Boeing taking time and consideration, My point is that their approach is totally wrong.

    I know you were not thinking that Boeing was taking time to consider the problem. My comment was that their approach is correct. Your approach is fraught with problems, especially since you think that all the valves should be replaced with the corrected part, including the valves that did not fail in the first place.

    The correct valves were already in place. These are valves that have been used on many spacecraft. If your meaning is that the corrected valve is one that does not have the corrupted surfaces, then the unaffected valves need not be replaced. The problem is not what you think it is.

    Boeing is doing the responsible engineering solution to the problem. They are studying it in order to understand the problem, otherwise they would only be guessing and hoping that any solution that they apply will work. Engineering by a hope and a prayer is not advisable. Engineering by understanding the system is advisable, and has been shown to be much more successful. That it did not work this time shows us that the system is not what they thought it was. That they are having trouble finding the source of the moisture shows that they don’t understand the system as well as they thought they did. But at least they thought they understood the system.

    This does not seem to be a case similar to the Shuttle’s O-rings or the External Tank’s insulation. This problem has not been seen before and declared normal (normalization of deviance), but it seems to be new. Boeing is not willing to normalize this deviation from the expected behavior of these valves and thruster system. This is a problem that they want to understand, solve, and never see again, and they are willing to take a big financial hit in order to do it right. They are doing the right thing in order to do the thing right.

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