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Starliner launch scrub: 13 of 24 of the capsule’s propulsion valves failed to work

It now appears that the launch scrub last week of Boeing’s Starliner second unmanned demo flight to ISS occurred because thirteen valves in the capsule’s propulsion valves all failed to open during prelaunch testing.

Over the weekend, the team made “positive progress,” a spokesperson said Monday, allowing the company to continue to plan for a launch this month. The company has found “no signs of damage or external corrosion,” Boeing said in a statement Monday. “Test teams are now applying mechanical, electrical and thermal techniques to prompt the valves open.” As a result, more than half of the valves “are now operating as designed,” it said, and work would continue on the others “in the days ahead.”

In a blog post, NASA said that “if all valve functionality can be restored and root cause identified, NASA will work with Boeing to determine a path to flight for the important uncrewed mission to the space station.” The earliest opportunity would come in mid-August, it said.

But Boeing still does not know what caused the valves to remain closed when they needed to be in the open position, and it is unclear how long determining that would take. As a result, some in the aerospace industry are skeptical the company could launch this month.

They have managed to get seven of those thirteen valves working again.

That 13 of 24 failed to function correct strongly suggests the problem isn’t random but is instead a fundamental design problem that needs to be identified prior to launch.

That such a problem has only been discovered now, during the launch countdown, does not reflect well on Boeing or its capsule. That the problem was not noticed in the year and a half delay caused by the software problems during the first unmanned demo flight in December 2019 makes this problem even more disturbing.

In fact, it is downright shocking. It makes one wonder about Boeing’s entire operation, considering the disastrous problems the company has also had with its commercial and military airplane projects in recent years. Does the company have no quality control systems in place, at all?

I truly hope Boeing gets this fixed and Starliner flying, but right now they need to fly a number of times, including reusing a capsule a few times, before I’d recommend anyone buying a ticket.


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  • Dean Hurt

    “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” NASA is proving daily why government run organizations are useless. Gone are the halcyon days of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Sky Lab, and SSLS. No vision, no more pioneer spirit. Thank goodness we have brave private citizens like Elon Musk that are fearless and visionary wanting to advance mankind to the planets and stars. Bezos and Branson are selfish pikers IMHO with a little vision, only for themselves. New Sheppard and Space Ship 1 and 2 are toys that allow billionaires to have a few moments thrills that none of us can ever enjoy.

  • MadRocketSci

    I wonder if they’re using the same valve subcontractor used in the Orion vehicle? IIRC there were some serious problems with the Orion propulsion feedsystem valves as well. They would not actuate reliably or correctly, would break during operation, would jam and stick due to dragging liners around. Our large prime aerospace companies seem to have serious problems with their supply chains, probably because they don’t do any of the development themselves and rely on outsourced testing and qualification.

    The “we don’t need to do it, we’re just an integrator!” model seems to be a horrible one for aerospace, or for any other complex system. Plugging boxes together as if you’re assembling legos is not how any of this works, or worked in the past.

  • mkent

    As far as I can tell, it appears that all of the valves in Starliner failed to function…

    11 of the 24 valves functioned correctly, which may actually be worse.

    That the problem was not noticed in the year and a half delay caused by the software problems during the first unmanned demo flight in December 2019 makes this problem even more disturbing.

    If I understand the system correctly — and I may not — the valves worked during the Starliner fueling sequence a few weeks before the launch attempt. It may be something that happened during or after the fueling sequence that caused them to fail.

    I would caution that this type of problem is impossible for outsiders to diagnose. It’ll be hard enough for the Boeing and NASA engineers to figure out, and they have access to a lot more information than people on the outside. As frustrating as it is, we’ll just have to wait for more information on the problem and the root cause.

  • MadRocketSci

    Bezos and Branson are selfish pikers IMHO with a little vision, only for themselves

    Eh, I dunno. I’m a little allergic to Musk-uber-alles. The more the merrier. Branson had a lot of problems in putting together his vehicle – he doesn’t have infinite money like Bezos does. He also lost a test pilot in a test-flight a few years ago.

    A little more in agreement wrt Bezos. If you have so much money your holdings warp the economy of the formerly free world, why are you chiseling for government contracts before you’ll build anything orbital? It doesn’t make a lot of sense – Bezos could fund a Mars colony with the rounding error on Amazon’s income.

  • Skunk Bucket

    Hours after the Challenger disaster, I was discussing with coworkers the idea of personally flying to space. While they were understandably spooked by the catastrophe, I insisted that, if allowed, I would willingly go aboard for the very next Shuttle launch, even if the problem hadn’t been diagnosed and fixed. The idea of seeing the earth from orbit has always been such a dream for me that a one-in-twenty-five risk of dying was (and probably still is) acceptable. That said, there’s no way you’d get me aboard that Starliner. Boeing has lost its way, and if the bad press they’ve been getting over the debacles on so many of their projects hasn’t been enough to get them to return to their old engineering first ethos, I don’t know what will.

  • MadRocketSci

    I unfortunately have some experience working in our large aerospace firms. It seems to me that they’ve been eaten alive by managerial bureaucracy, and depend on outside firms to get anything done. Their own engineers are tied in pretzel knots and spend their days jumping through hoops trying to justify things to their overlords. It’s really kind of soul crushing working for those places. Engineers want to build things. MBAs want to keep engineers from building things (until it’s justified in triplicate with quad charts briefed all the way up the infinite heirarchy), in the name of “efficiency”.

  • Kyle

    I know this is literally rocket science, but come on Boeing, get going.

  • Ron Desmarais

    I am hoping that Sierra Nevada has the ability to quickly man-rate their Dream Chaser vehicle once they start launching cargo missions. We need to have more than one way to orbit and quite frankly I have little confidence that either Boeing or Blue Origin will get the job done.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “As far as I can tell, it appears that all of the valves in Starliner failed to function, which strongly suggests the problem isn’t random but is instead a fundamental design problem that needs to be identified prior to launch.

    I agree that it probably is not random, but it need not be a design problem but could be a storage or operational problem. This is one reason why root causes are important to find.

    That such a problem has only been discovered now, during the launch countdown, does not reflect well on Boeing or its capsule. That the problem was not noticed in the year and a half delay caused by the software problems during the first unmanned demo flight in December 2019 makes this problem even more disturbing.

    There is a balance between over testing and under testing. When tests are performed over and over and no problems are found, then there is over testing. When tests are performed less often and problems are found just before launch, then there was under testing. It is often difficult to know beforehand when you have under tested your system.

    There are plenty of questions as to why these valves became sticky, or whatever, but they were probably in place for a similar amount of time before the first launch. If there weren’t valve problems then, Boeing had little reason to think that they would have valve problems now. An important question is: what was the difference between then and now? There is an unknown at play, here, and an interesting lesson will be learned about the performance of these valves.

  • Jeff Wright

    This all comes down to engineers who want to do great things not given a free had…be it public or private. Now Musk might do things at a lower cost…but he wasn’t afraid to spend big bucks early..where Boeing is in a holding pattern and spread out. Now unlike many of you, I think gov’t can make this better. China has a pseudo capitalist take. Well…I’d flip the script. Uncle Sam pays the engineers…and a Duncan Hunter true believer is their new boss…and they no longer answer to Boeing suits. The company gets enough in contracts so stocks don’t tank, but lose all authority…and engineers vote on who the CEO is. Now I’d do this under a new administration of course. The key is to give Bezos Jarvis model teeth-because the for-profit model at Boeing isn’t working.

  • Detecting some economic-envy, here. Not really fair; it’s their money. Spend yours on what you want. If you want spaceships, make more money.

  • Jeff Wright stated: “because the for-profit model at Boeing isn’t working.”

    Well, that’s on Boeing, isn’t it? No need to to ‘flip the economy’ off bad decisions in the private sector. ‘Freedom’, means freedom to fail, too. You puts down your money and you takes your chances. Works the same at every level.

  • Edward observed:” It is often difficult to know beforehand when you have under tested your system.”

    That is engineer-speak for ‘when it blows up’.

  • mkent

    So, Robert, still not correcting the falsehood that none of the valves worked?

    Mind you, I’m not sure that having 11 of the 24 valves work is actually better than having all of them fail (which could mean a common failure mode such as an umbilical failure), but it does have the benefit of being what actually happened.

  • mkent: I’ve made the correction, but I also have a bone to pick with you.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, I appreciate people spotting errors and letting me know, because everyone who does so — except you — clearly has the goal of trying to help me make this site better.

    That might be your goal, but I don’t get that sense from your corrections. Instead I get the sense that you like to play the game “Gotta ya!”, and worse, like to do it in the ugliest manner possible. You repeatedly offer your corrections in a way that tries to embarrass me. For example, earlier today, in correcting the Space Force story, you could have simply explained, politely, that VOX was Virgin Orbit, since you KNOW I have been listing Virgin Orbit as having successfully launched twice this year in my regular launch reports. That would have been the nice way to do it. Instead, you arranged things to make it look for about an hour that I had, in my launch standings, missed two launches of one company completely. Not very nice, and completely unnecessary.

    In this case, you could have nicely noted that the story still needed correcting, Instead, you implied that I was purposely leaving the error up. That is slanderous, and quite unfair, especially since I have consistently made corrections when justified, every time, including when they come from you in a rude and ugly manner.

    Note too that I did not know the right info, and though I said in the title and article that “none worked”, I also qualified that statement both times. Which means I was more than glad to get better information. I just forgot to make the correction immediately.

    All I am asking is that you treat me with a bit of decent respect and a bit of good will. We both try to get things right. I want that help. It is just unnecessary to play a gotcha game.

  • pawn

    The really sad thing about this for me is I’m sure there are a couple of engineers in the ranks that knew all about this problem a long time ago and just had to stop pushing the issue to keep from being kicked off the project. Typically these guys hope the problems show up in testing but it seems that Boeing is test adverse these days.

    When your hardware chops degenerate to the point where you can’t even manage something as mundane as a set of valves, you really need to start looking at how you are doing things because you are doing it wrong.

    I don’t even want to think about JWST.

  • pawn

    This is the same flight article that flew before correct? It’s quite possible there’s a wet contamination/material degradation problem too. Well just have to wait and see as Mr. Kent has pointed out.

  • Jay

    No, this is spacecraft#2. The one that got launched in 2019 was spacecraft#3, called the Calypso. I have no idea what spacecraft#2 is named. I guess they name them the day of the launch?

    I too am waiting for the results of what was found. I saw on the twitter feed a couple technicians hanging from cables and checking the valves.

    I cannot find this info anywhere, but what is the RCS propellant used for the Starliner? I was surprised that the search engines could not find it. I know what it is for Orion, but this is a different beast.

  • pawn

    Jay, it’s the usual suspects.

    From SFN:

    “Boeing finished loading hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide maneuvering propellants over the weekend into the company’s second space-rated Starliner capsule at the Kennedy Space Center”

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