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Boeing prepared to fly crewed space taxi Starliner with helium leak

Problems with spacecraft have triggered years of delays

Boeings CST-100 Starliner spacecraft prepares to launch at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Boeing Co. and NASA are prepared to move forward with the inaugural crewed launch of the company's space taxi on June 1 without fixing a small helium leak that was discovered during an earlier launch attempt.

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Representatives from NASA and Boeing told reporters on Friday that after conducting enough analysis, they are comfortable flying the spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, with the helium leak and simply monitoring it throughout the mission to the International Space Station. They said if the leak were to get worse during the trip, they could still manage to complete the mission safely.

"This is really not a safety of flight issue for ourselves, and we believe that we have a well-understood condition that we can manage," Mark Nappi, a Boeing vice president and program manager for Starliner, said during a press conference to discuss the issue.

Boeing received a contract in 2014 to develop Starliner to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA. After years of delays, technical issues and setbacks, Boeing is now on the verge of finally launching Starliner with its first human passengers "NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore" part of a critical test flight to prove the spacecraft can safely transport people to space and back.


Boeing was on the cusp of launching Starliner with its crew on May 6, but the countdown was halted hours before launch due to an oddly behaving pressure valve in the rocket meant to carry the capsule to space.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s United Launch Alliance, which manufactures and operates the Atlas V rocket carrying Starliner, opted to remove the rocket from the launchpad to replace the valve.

During that replacement, Boeing and NASA decided to delay the mission even further to analyze the helium leak in Starliner that cropped up during the launch attempt.

NASA and Boeing have also been doing separate analysis on Starliner's entire propulsion system, discovering a potential issue with the thrusters that could have cropped up while the vehicle was returning to Earth that would have been a major problem for the journey home. Boeing and NASA said they were able to find a fix for that problem in the rare chance that it does occur during flight.

The helium leak, which is tied to one of Starliner's many thrusters used to maneuver the vehicle through space, seems to be an isolated issue and the spacecraft's other thrusters do not appear to have the same leak problem, according to NASA and Boeing. The source of the leak was traced back to a defective seal, but Boeing and NASA weren't sure if the seal was manufactured incorrectly or installed improperly.


NASA said that crewed spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle and SpaceX's Crew Dragon "- the other vehicle the US space agency contracted for space station missions under its Commercial Crew Program "- have flown people with leaks before.

In the meantime, Starliner's crew is still in Houston with plans to return to Starliner's launch site in Florida on May 28.

"They're in good spirits," Steve Stich, NASA's manager for its Commercial Crew Program, said during the press conference. "They've tied into our meetings. They advised us to get some rest, which we're going to do now that we've set up for the launch on June 1."