Sunday, July 21, 2024

Boeing’s first astronaut flight called off

Last-minute computer issues thwarted Boeing’s attempt to launch its first astronaut flight on Saturday, adding to a series of delays over the years.

Two NASA astronauts were already strapped into the Starliner capsule when the countdown was automatically halted at 3 minutes and 50 seconds by the system managing the final stages before liftoff.

With no time to resolve the issue, the launch was canceled.

Technicians quickly reached the pad to assist astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams out of the capsule atop the fully fueled Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The hatch was reopened within an hour of the abort.

United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno stated that the team cannot access the computers to diagnose the problem until the rocket is fully drained of fuel. He explained that one of the three redundant computers at the pad was sluggish, and all three must function properly for a launch.

Depending on the necessary fixes, the next launch attempt could be as soon as Wednesday. If it doesn’t happen this week, the launch would be postponed until mid-June to move the rocket off the pad and replace batteries.

“This is the business we’re in,” said Mark Nappi of Boeing. “Everything’s got to work perfectly.”

This was the second launch attempt; the first on May 6 was delayed for leak checks and rocket repairs.

NASA seeks a backup to SpaceX, which has been flying astronauts since 2020.

Boeing was supposed to launch its first crew around the same time as SpaceX, but its first uncrewed test flight in 2019 faced severe software issues and didn’t reach the space station.

A redo in 2022 went better, but parachute problems and flammable materials caused further delays. A small helium leak in the capsule’s propulsion system last month added to a rocket valve issue.

More valve problems surfaced two hours before Saturday’s planned liftoff, but the team used a backup circuit to get the ground-equipment valves working to fuel the rocket’s upper stage. Launch controllers felt relieved to continue, but the ground launch sequencer computer system halted the effort.

“Of course, this is emotionally disappointing,” said NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, the backup pilot, from the neighboring Kennedy Space Center shortly after the countdown stopped.

However, he noted that delays are part of spaceflight. “We’re going to have a great launch in our future.”

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