This ain't Boeing very well: Starliner's first crewed flight canceled yet again

Flammable tape and unreliable parachutes ground craft this time around

Days after saying it remained on track for the first crewed Starliner flight next month, NASA and Boeing have scrapped their July launch plan to give them "time to address recent emerging issues." 

The grounding is due to tape Boeing used on Starliner to protect wires from chafing and its flammability risk, as well as trouble with the spacecraft's rather important parachute system, NASA and Boeing officials shared in a briefing yesterday. The tape wasn't tested for flammability until "late in the process," officials said, while linkage points where the parachutes connect to the spacecraft broke in recent tests, leaving engineers under confident in their strength.

Both issues were singled out in NASA's note earlier in the week about the current state of the Starliner program, and it appears both were too serious to resolve by the time preparing for the flight. 

"We're disappointed because it means a delay, but the team's proud that we're making the right [safety] choices," Boeing VP for the Starliner project, Mark Nappi, said at the briefing. 

Are you sure this thing is safe?

The need to constantly delay Starliner's flights over safety issues isn't likely to reassure test flight crew Sunita "Suni" Williams and Barry "Butch" Wilmore, who will eventually be sent to the International Space Station aboard the vehicle - if they don't change their minds.

Starliner is getting close to racking up $1 billion in losses for Boeing since production on the craft began a decade ago. Problems have been endemic with the vehicle since it first flew in 2019, an event marked by a timing error that caused the capsule to burn all of its fuel before aborting a planned docking with the ISS. A second launch attempt in 2021 was scrubbed over failed pre-flight checks.

Corrosion found in the craft's systems kept it grounded for the rest of 2021, and it wasn't until last May that the spacecraft finally reached the ISS to drop off supplies, though that mission wasn't without issues either. 

NASA finally said it was ready to send Starliner, with Williams and Wilmore aboard, to the ISS this past April, but that didn't happen: a risk of overheating batteries kept it grounded and necessitated the shift to the now-abandoned July launch window.

That leaves, as has been the case since it first sent crew to the ISS in 2020, SpaceX the only company to accomplish NASA's Commercial Crew Program objectives, and with the US space agency scrambling for someone - anyone but Boeing, perhaps - to fill the program gap.

"NASA desperately needs a second provider for crew transportation," NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said Thursday. ®

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