First crewed Starliner flight to ISS delayed until at least March 2024
Six years after its initial launch date, the first crewed flight of Boeing's ill-fated Starliner spacecraft has been postponed once again until at least March 2024 due to ongoing issues with the capsule's reentry parachutes and related safety issues.
Starliner is one of those aerospace projects that never seems to be able to catch a break. During development, which began in 2010, the spacecraft has had to undergo basic design changes to reduce weight, improve aerodynamics, and meet new NASA software standards. This was followed by thruster leaks and a parachute failure during an abort test.
If that wasn't enough, on its maiden flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on December 20, 2019, the uncrewed craft suffered a timer malfunction that sent it into the wrong orbit, followed by an emergency landing at White Sands, New Mexico, two days later.
In August 2021, the second orbital mission was scrubbed because of multiple valve problems due to corrosion, resulting in the decision to completely replace the craft's service module. Eventually, on May 19, 2022, an uncrewed Starliner completed a successful launch and docked with the ISS.
The hope was that a crewed mission would launch on July 21, 2023, but a review by NASA, Boeing, and outside inspection teams confirmed that Starliner is still unfit to carry astronauts and required a refit and additional drop tests for certification.
According to NASA and Boeing, the main problem is with the P213 tape and soft links used to secure the parachutes. The tape showed inconsistencies in testing when it came to flammability and needed to be replaced with an improved kevlar version. The soft links, which are used to reduce damage to the parachute when opening, also required redesign and replacement. In addition, the entire parachute assembly needs to be retested and recertified.
A NASA spokesman said that this precluded another launch attempt before next March. To date, it is estimated that Boeing has spent US$1.1 billion on Starliner.