NASA hopes to accelerate the timeline to certify private companies to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) — so the agency is turning a previously scheduled Starliner test flight into a full-fledged mission. It’s a bold move, but some scientists worry that such an aggressive venture could jeopardize crew safety. And now that there’s been an “anomaly” during the most recent test of the launch abort engines for the Starliner, and this timeline may have to be pushed back.
“The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration,” Boeing said in a statement. “During engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak.”
While Boeing didn’t provide further details about what exactly went wrong, sources claimed that a valve in the propulsion system did not close entirely at the conclusion of the test, which led to the leak.
“We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners,” Boeing added in the statement. “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”
While it remains to be seen whether or not this issue will affect Starliner’s development schedule, we should find out in the near future. Updates on crew test schedules should be released by NASA in the coming days. For now, it’s likely that they’re not going to take place anytime soon. Both SpaceX and Boeing’s launch dates are expected to be sometime in late 2019, and likely won’t be able to win certification to send astronauts to the International Space Station until late 2019 at the earliest.
This may come as a blow to Boeing, who proposed an updated and accelerated schedule in a contract modification. The amendment would add a third blue-suited crew member to the Starliner “Crew Flight Test” and extend the mission from two weeks to a full six months, according to Florida Today.
NASA’s current contract with Russia to ferry astronauts to the ISS aboard Soyuz spacecraft expires in 2019. Purchasing additional Soyuz seats is not an option, due to the long lead times involved. However, the two private contractors, Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, will likely not be certified for four-person crews by that time.
“It was clear to us that we needed to provide NASA with additional flexibility to ensure the station remains fully staffed and fully operational until the Commercial Crew Program providers can pick up a more regular cadence of flying long-duration crew rotation missions,” Boeing said in a statement.
“This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” Bill Gerstenmaier of NASA added. “We appreciate Boeing’s willingness to evolve its flight to ensure we have continued access to space for our astronauts.”
In 2014, NASA awarded a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing and a $2.6 billion contract to SpaceX for two test flights and six operational missions. Boeing and SpaceX will both launch unmanned test flights later this summer, and the original plan was to follow those missions up with second test flights with two-person crews before the end of the year.
Schedule pressure was a factor in the two shuttle disasters, and scientists on the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel have warned the agency not to be too hasty. As recently as 2012, however, NASA expanded the scope of the Dragon capsule test launch by packing it with supplies for the ISS and proceeding with the launch as if it was a regular operational mission.
At a presentation in March, NASA’s Kathy Lueders admitted that the new timeline was aggressive but achievable, reported Space News. “In a perfect schedule, it all could come together,” she said. “We really want to give them the time to do this right. Yes, we want them to do it as fast as possible, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the safety of the crew.”