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ULA begins stacking Atlas-5 rocket that will launch Starliner on demo mission

Capitalism in space: ULA has begin assembling the Atlas-5 rocket it will use in May to launch Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule on its second unmanned demo mission.

The article provides a detailed description of the status of both the rocket and the capsule, including this update on the valve issues that caused the August ’21 launch of this second demo mission to be scrubbed:

Engineers believe the valve components likely corroded from the interaction of nitrogen tetroxide propellant with moisture that seeped into the thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, then permeated a Teflon seal inside the valve itself.

Technicians removed the service module from the Starliner’s crew module in January for shipment to a test facility in New Mexico, where teams are performing tests to better understand the valve problem. The OFT-2 [in May] mission will fly with a new service module, one originally assigned to the first Starliner mission with astronauts. Teams inside Boeing’s Starliner hangar mated the crew module with the new service module March 12. Filling of the service module with propellant is expected to occur this month, before the spacecraft rolls over to ULA’s rocket integration building for stacking atop the Atlas 5.

Boeing said the Starliner team designed a new purging system to help prevent moisture from getting into the valves during the upcoming launch campaign while the spacecraft is in the factory and at ULA’s launch site.

Boeing’s engineering failures with Starliner have been expensive to the company. Not only has Boeing had to pay out of its own pocket an extra $410 million for this second demo flight, it has had to write off the cost of that first service module. Furthermore, not being operational has probably meant it has lost business to SpaceX and its Dragon capsules. For example, when Axiom first announced it was going to fly commercial tourist flights in 2018, it was expected the company would use both Dragon and Starliner capsules. That might still happen, but at least for the first few years of operations all of Axiom’s business has gone to SpaceX. NASA has also had to throw all its manned flights to SpaceX for the next few years, some of which was originally aimed at Boeing.

Should this second demo flight succeed, however, the company will finally be in a position to launch passengers on Starliner and thus make money from the capsule.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • David K

    Starliner, really? At this point the only real competition to SpaceX’s Dragon is SpaceX’s Starship. Everyone else is so far behind that it is embarrassing.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Pray for no rain!

  • tregonsee314

    There’s another unmentioned problem here. Doesn’t the Atlas V use RD-180 engines on the first stage? Being made by Energomash (Russian company) they’re going to be a little scarce for a while. On top of that the Atlas V is to be replaced ultimately by the ULA Vulcan which is to use the BE-4 engine, which at present (and likely for the near future) is unavailable due to Blue Origin being WAY behind on BE-4 development. Starliner seems so cursed that perhaps it should be renamed “The Flying Dutchman” as I suspect Capt. Vandervecken had a better chance at getting around the Cape of Good Hope than this thing has of ever making a profit for Boeing.

  • Star Bird

    Hop on the Spindrift take little suboribital flight and end up in the Giants Land

  • Edward

    tregonsee314 asked: “Doesn’t the Atlas V use RD-180 engines on the first stage?

    Not to worry; ULA has reported that it has all the Russian engines that it needs for the final Atlas V launches.

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