NASA yesterday issued an update on Boeing’s investigation into Starliner valve issue, noting that progress is being made.
Boeing has demonstrated success in valve functionality using localized heating and electrical charging techniques. Troubleshooting on the pad, at the launch complex, and inside the Starliner production factory at Kennedy Space Center has resulted in movement of all but one of the original stuck valves. That valve has not been moved intentionally to preserve forensics for direct root cause analysis.
Most items on the fault tree have been dispositioned by the team including causes related to avionics, flight software and wiring. Boeing has identified a most probable cause related to oxidizer and moisture interactions, and although some verification work remains underway, our confidence is high enough that we are commencing corrective and preventive actions. Additional spacecraft and component testing will be conducted in the coming weeks to further explore contributing factors and necessary system remediation before flight.
…Boeing has identified several paths forward depending on the outcome of the testing to ultimately resolve the issue and prevent it from happening on future flights. These options could range from minor refurbishment of the current service module components to using another service module already in production. [emphasis mine]
The announcement also confirmed that the next launch attempt of the unmanned demo mission is now being targeted for “the first half of 2022, pending hardware readiness, the rocket manifest, and space station availability.”
The highlighted words raise a very serious question. How is it possible for “oxidizer and moisture interactions” to cause this problem now on Starliner, when the environmental conditions at Cape Canaveral for spacecraft have been understood for better than sixty years? Though this problem might have uncovered a previously undetected fundamental engineering issue related to valves, I am very skeptical. It seems more likely that some quality control issue occurred during this capsule’s assembly. That they are considering using a different Starliner capsule for the demo flight strongly confirms this, suggesting again that the valve issue is not systemic to all valves but is specifically linked to the assembly of this capsule.
If this speculation is correct, it suggests there are some some very disturbing quality control problems in Boeing’s Starliner design and assembly processes. First they missed about sixty software issues that forced the premature landing of the capsule in the first demo flight, issues that should have been fixed during design and construction. Now it appears they have discovered assembly problems with the capsule’s valves, and only did so mere hours before launch.
Boeing has got to get these issues fixed, or it is going to have a serious public relations problem garnering private customers outside NASA once Starliner begins commercial flights.
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