Boeing is delaying the launch of the Starliner Crew Flight Test yet again. The most recent delay, from May 17 to May 21, was due to a helium leak in Starliner’s Reaction Control System. Boeing has determined the leak is stable and would not pose a risk, but needs time to develop operational procedures to cope with it. The new date is May 25 at 3:09 pm ET.

The Crew Flight Test or CFT is the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to carry a crew and will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, both experienced NASA astronauts and Navy test pilots, will fly Starliner to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s certification process to confirm it is safe enough for NASA’s purposes.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, left, and Suni Williams, right, walk out of crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center on May 6, 2024 to head to Space Launch Complex-41 at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for launch on the Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test. The launch was scrubbed that night, however. Photo Credit:(NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Wilmore and Williams were settling into their seats just two hours from the scheduled liftoff on May 6 when ULA detected a problem with a valve in the rocket’s Centaur upper stage and the launch was scrubbed. The valve had to be replaced which meant taking the rocket with Starliner on top back to the Vertical Integration Facility. They set May 17 as the next “no earlier than” (NET) launch date.

ULA’s Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s Starliner capsule on top departs ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility on the way to the launch pad, May 4, 2024. Credit: ULA

ULA changed out and tested the valve, but in the meantime Boeing detected a helium leak in one of Starliner’s 28 Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters. The thrusters are needed for in-orbit maneuvering and in case of a high-altitude abort. Boeing needed time to assess the situation and the launch slipped to NET May 21.

Today NASA, Boeing and ULA said the leak “is stable and would not pose a risk at that level during the flight,” but Boeing needs more time “to develop operational procedures to ensure the system retains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during the flight.”  Now the date is NET May 25 at 3:09 pm ET.

“The additional time allows teams to further assess a small helium leak in the Boeing Starliner spacecraft’s service module traced to a flange on a single reaction control system thruster. Pressure testing performed on May 15 on the spacecraft’s helium system showed the leak in the flange is stable and would not pose a risk at that level during the flight. The testing also indicated the rest of the thruster system is sealed effectively across the entire service module. Boeing teams are working to develop operational procedures to ensure the system retains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during the flight. As that work proceeds, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and the International Space Station Program will take the next few days to review the data and procedures to make a final determination before proceeding to flight countdown.”

Boeing and SpaceX were both awarded contracts by NASA in 2014 to develop new crew space transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. NASA wanted two systems to ensure redundancy in case one was grounded for any reason, and competition since NASA buys transportation services from the two companies who retain ownership of the vehicles.

SpaceX flew its equivalent of the CFT in 2020 and now routinely takes NASA astronauts as well as private astronauts to orbit.

Boeing is four years behind. Starliner has encountered one problem after another since the first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in December 2019 that uncovered serious defects. Boeing decided to refly the uncrewed test before putting people on board. It was two-and-a-half years before that second flight, OFT-2, successfully took place in May 2022. Boeing and NASA were optimistic about getting this mission, CFT, off the ground in early 2023, but more issues emerged. Last July the launch was indefinitely delayed when Boeing discovered tape wrapped around wiring harnesses inside the spacecraft was flammable and soft link fabric sections of the parachutes were insufficiently strong.

Because it’s a fixed price contract, Boeing has to shoulder the extra costs for the OFT reflight, schedule delays and fixing all the problems. By July 2023, Boeing had taken more than $1 billion in charges against earnings and is eager to get Starliner certified for operational missions.

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