Boeing Hits Snag During Latest Test Of Its Starliner Spacecraft For Astronauts

David C. BowmanNASA via AP Images

Boeing has encountered yet another problem in the development of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which might end up pushing back this year’s test flight once again, reports the Washington Post.

Just like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle, the Starliner is being developed under a NASA contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

But the latest test of the crew capsule has revealed a fault that could disrupt the schedule of the upcoming pad abort test — an important step that Boeing needs to take before its Starliner spacecraft can be certified for crewed flights.

According to a recent report by Ars Technica, the company discovered an “anomaly” during a static test of its launch abort system, conducted in late June with the goal to prepare the Starliner for the pad abort test slated to take place later this summer.

Boeing has now confirmed the news, notes Space News, providing more details regarding what went wrong during the Starliner’s test.

The company stated that it discovered a leak during a hot-fire test of the launch abort engines but that it’s confident the problem can be fixed without the need to make significant changes in the spacecraft’s design.

The test took place at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and started off well enough.

“The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration,” Boeing representatives said in a statement.

The problem appeared toward the end of the procedure when the launch-abort engines were powering down, Boeing revealed.

“During engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak,” noted the statement from the company.

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“We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners. We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action,” said Boeing representatives. “Flight safety and risk mitigation are why we conduct such rigorous testing, and anomalies are a natural part of any test program.”

The launch abort system is a vital component of the Starliner spacecraft, as it allows the crew pod to eject in case of a rocket explosion, propelling the passengers to safety.

The system is comprised of four launch abort engines installed on the service module and which can quickly separate the spacecraft from the Atlas 5 rocket in the event of an emergency.

As Space News points out, the engines, which are developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, make us of hypergolic propellants to generate 40,000 pounds-force of thrust each.

While Boeing hasn’t specified the exact cause of the propellant leak, previous media reports that surfaced before the company’s official statement attributed it to a hydrazine valve in the propulsion system, which failed to close properly at the end of the test.

Aside from the spacecraft that underwent the testing, Boeing is also working on two other Starliner vehicles. One of them is scheduled to fly the unmanned orbital test flight announced to take place later this year, while the other one has been designated for the first crewed flight test next year.