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Washington, Aug 8 – Boeing said that it has again stalled the first crewed flight of its Starliner capsule and it now plans to take off next year.
Starliner’s astronaut launch, which is already running years behind schedule, was scheduled to lift off to the International Space Station (ISS) on July 21 with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams.
“Based on the current plans, we’re anticipating that we’re going to be ready with the spacecraft in early March (2024). That does not mean that we have a launch date in early March. That means that we are ready with the spacecraft then,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner vice president and programme manager, said during a press conference on Monday.
“What I know everybody would like is (a) launch date. The vehicle will be ready in the March timeframe,” added Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme.
Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, or CFT, mission has been repeatedly delayed — from December 2022 to February 2023, then to March, then to April, and then to July.
In June, the company shared that the flight was delayed over parachute and wiring safety issues.
Boeing and NASA officials have now confirmed that those problems could not be resolved in time for a launch this fall.
Further, Boeing engineers found that the “soft links” used on the suspension lines of Starliner’s three main parachutes are not quite as robust as previously thought, and the company determined that the protective tape it used to wrap the capsule’s many wires is flammable, Space.com reported.
Nappi said that Boeing is taking the tape off in places where it’s easy and safe, and is also considering protective barriers or coatings over it.
He noted that Boeing is currently manufacturing modified the soft link design to make it stronger.
The company also decided to swap out Starliner’s parachute system, putting a new version slated for the first operational mission on board for CFT. The new soft links will be incorporated into the new chutes, which will get to strut their stuff during a drop test soon, the report said.
“We expect that the drop test will occur in mid to late November,” Nappi said. “That’s what the planning indicates at this point, and we’ll watch that closely.”
Boeing had signed a contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme to fly operational missions to and from the space station with Starliner in 2014.
However, it has faced a series of setbacks.
Its debut uncrewed orbital flight mission in 2019 did not go exactly as planned, requiring it to make another try before putting astronauts on board for the crewed flight test.
The capsule, however, made a successful repeat of that mission in 2022.
The flammable tape issue and the parachute soft links issue were both present on that flight, but the mission was a success, NASA officials said.