Boeing Starliner spacecraft still requires months of work before NASA astronaut flight

Boeing managers revealed the company has months of work remaining to get the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft ready for its first NASA astronaut flight to the International Space Station. 

Boeing was set to launch its first round of astronauts from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to the space station this summer, however, weeks before the July launch date, mission managers revealed two new problems discovered with the spacecraft.

Engineers discovered new issues after further examining data from the CST-100 Starliner orbital test flight (OFT) from May 2022, a repeat test flight from a botched attempt in 2019 that ended without docking at the ISS because of a computer glitch.

In June, Boeing managers revealed two new issues going into the Crew Flight Test (CFT) with NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore. On Monday, NASA and Boeing leaders said corrective measures are still in progress, and the CFT won't happen until next year. 

The more significant issue was discovered with the parachutes used to slow the spacecraft for landing back on Earth. Small sections of the lines that run from Starliner to the parachutes, called soft links, were retested because Boeing engineers believed the data was recorded incorrectly, and the lines have a lower failure limit. The theory was confirmed through additional testing. 

Boeing Starliner program manager Mark Nappi said fixes for the soft links are in testing, including options a Boeing engineer came up with in his garage. 

"One of our engineers on the program builds chutes for personal use, and the day that we found out that the testing was suspect, he went home in his garage and built three prototypes to try and understand what we could do next and brought those back," Nappi said. "Right off the bat, you know, we had a really good head start on figuring out what we needed to do to redesign those."

Boeing will add additional stitching to the soft links, and after a drop test in November, the final chute design should be delivered around December. 

Fixing the parachute concerns is essential before CFT can happen. 

"The parachute delivery is the critical path," Nappi said. 

The second concern involved flammable tape used extensively inside the spacecraft to wrap wire harnesses on Starliner.

To resolve the issue, the vehicle was divided into 12 zones, and engineers are removing tape or applying "remediation techniques" to areas where the tape cannot be removed.