Updates on Boeing’s OFT-2 mission to the International Space Station

In August, Boeing attempted to launch its second Orbital Flight Test mission to the International Space Station but was plagued by valve malfunctions. Since then, Boeing and NASA have been giving updates on where they are with returning to launch.

Boeing OFT-2 mission recap

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If you have not been paying attention to the story of Boeing’s OFT-2 mission, here is a quick recap.

In December of 2019, Boeing launched its first uncrewed Starliner spacecraft to space on top of an Atlas V rocket. The goal of this mission was to verify all the spacecraft systems were ready for crewed flight and dock with the ISS.

However, the spacecraft never made it to the space station. An issue with the mission’s elapsed timer caused Starliner to believe it was at a different point of the mission than the Atlas rocket launching it. This software glitch caused the capsule to fire its reaction control thrusters to try to fix what the spacecraft thought was an incorrect position. Unfortunately, this meant the capsule did not perform the proper orbit raising burns to rendezvous with the station, and the mission had to be aborted.

A ULA Atlas V launching the first Boeing Starliner to space. Photo Credit: NASA / Joel Kowsky

Furthermore, a mapping issue between thrusters was discovered and it was believed, if gone unfixed, it could cause the loss of Starliner. Luckily, Boeing uploaded a software patch to fix this issue before the spacecraft safety landed at the White Sands Missile Range.

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The second attempt to get Starliner to the ISS took a year and a half to happen. With fixes made to the flight software that plagued the first attempt, Boeing and the community seemed confident in the company’s ability to accomplish its goals.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as between the delays due to Russia’s Nauka module thruster mishap and then an anomaly with stuck valves in Starliner’s service module, the launch was scrubbed. Since then, Boeing is still working on fixing what caused moisture to enter these valves and form corrosion inside the valves.

What Boeing is doing to fix the valve issue

Since the scrub of OFT-2, Boeing began looking into the valves while inside ULA’s vertical integration facility. Teams quickly learned that they would need to demate the capsule from the rocket and move it to Boeing’s factory located by NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. This confirmed there would be a long-term delay in the launch of this mission again.

Since being moved from the VIF to Boeing’s factory, the teams have freed all but one of the stuck valves. This last value will remain in its original condition for validation tests once the problem is solved. In addition, three valves have been fully removed from the service module, which will not be swapped out for Boeing’s Crewed Flight Test service module when another launch attempt is made.

These three valves are being sent to NASA’s Marshall Flight Center for further testings. Boeing is also conducting tests on valves out in White Sands Missile Range to further understand the root cause of the valve malfunction. As of right now, Boeing is still working towards the root cause and a fix to the OFT-2 valve malfunction.

When might we see OFT-2 or the Crewed Flight Test launch?

It is unknown when Starliner will launch again. NASA has stated it is still entirely behind Boeing and the Starliner spacecraft. They expect OFT-2 to launch within the first half of 2022 but for CFT, they have not had many discussions about that launch, most likely meaning no earlier than 2023.

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