June 18, 2024

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It may be time for NASA to rescue Boeing’s Starliner

It may be time for NASA to rescue Boeing’s Starliner

In a not-so-shocking development, NASA has once again suspended the first crewed launch of a Boeing Starliner. A troublesome helium leak discovered earlier in May continues to wreak havoc on the capsule, and engineers are struggling to find a solution that will get things back on track.

It may come as a surprise now, with all this delay Boeing’s ongoing battle with manufacturing issues, but there was a time when Starliner was actually a very promising option for space exploration. Boeing had already proven its ability to be a leading supplier of aircraft, and appeared to be on its way to doing the same with spacecraft.

Unfortunately, nearly a decade later, any hopes and dreams that once rested on Starliner’s shoulders have begun to fade, replaced by the successes of other companies — like SpaceX — and the recurring failures and problems that plagued Boeing’s capsule.

It’s been more than a decade since Boeing won NASA’s contract to develop a spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, and now that we’re in the final stretch, the spacecraft has yet to carry any humans into space. Not only has the program seen repeated delays, including a postponement of the recent launch, but the program has also been plagued by manufacturing issues.

Image source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Things like corroded valves and even serious software bugs helped hold Starliner back while SpaceX and its Dragon spacecraft continued to step in to fill the void. Perhaps one of the most egregious cases was the fact that Boeing discovered problems with the design of its parachute system and the fact that it had Use flammable tape inside the capsule. This delayed the first crewed launch from its original launch date of 2023, and no, more than a year later, we’re still waiting.

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Mistakes happen, especially when you’re creating something that has to be designed to withstand the rigors of space. But with NASA continuing to postpone the launch due to an ongoing helium leak they can’t figure out how to fix, I can’t help but wonder why NASA and Boeing keep pouring money into the Starliner when all the cards seem stacked against it.

The two astronauts set to travel to the International Space Station aboard the capsule on its first manned flight are certainly braver than most to put their faith in the Starliner’s terrifying history. With the last launch date canceled, and NASA still having no timetable, I wonder if we might finally be seeing the beginning of the end for Starliner.

I know NASA desperately wants another company to rely on them for space launches, as the monopoly certainly gives Elon Musk’s SpaceX a huge advantage. But if this freedom comes with the risks that Boeing’s capsule certainly seems to carry, is it really worth it?

For me, it’s not. But maybe NASA and Boeing will finally figure things out, and we’ll see the Starliner become the work of art that Boeing always wanted. I suppose only time will tell. But right now, I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath.