Boeing Denies Feeling The Heat From SpaceX In Race To Space

Ramish Zafar
Boeing Starliner
The Boeing Starliner rendered performing an orbit of Earth. Image: Boeing

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As part of a media teleconference for its second operational flight test (OFT-2) for the Orion spacecraft, representatives of The Boeing Company assured members of the press that the rapid success of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft is not affecting them in any way. Boeing and SpaceX are both a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) commercial crew program which aims to develop a sustained American capability of conducting crewed flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

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As part of her prepared remarks, Boeing's vice president and deputy general manager of Space and Launch, Ms. Michelle Parker explained the measures that her company has undertaken to ensure that the Starliner vehicle is ready to take to the skies later this month. This mission, dubbed OFT-2, was set to take off in July last year but got delayed as an accident on the ISS made the space station unavailable for docking. Then, a month later in August, Boeing stepped down from the launch attempt, and it explained that valve problems on the vehicle made the launch unfeasible.

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Now, nine months after disocvering the problem, Boeing is confident that the Starliner propulsion valves are free from fault. Ms. Parker, who was the chief engineer for testing the vehicle after the launch delay, outlined that:

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft pictured in NASA's facilities in March this year. Image: Boeing

The spacecraft looks great, it's performing great, and it's ready for its trip tomorrow. The team is also prepared, they've been rehearsing and they're ready to go and we're looking forward to a successful mission on the 19th. Just to say a few words on the oxidizer isolation valve issue that we've been working through since our last attempt in August. There's been significant progress. We have been able to narrow down the root cause and put mitigations in place that I'll talk about a bit to ensure that we won't have a repeat of that concern. So we're confident that we've got that surrounded, and have the right process going forward.

If you recall when we first experienced the issue in august we immediately set up an integrated investigation team. So that was all team members, NASA, Boeing and ourselves involved to look at all possible causes with the goal of understanding the issue, mitigating it, and returning to the launch pad safely and as efficiently as possible, and I am glad to be able to say that the team has accomplished this goal and we're ready to go. As you may recall we followed a rigorous process to make sure we understood the behavior; we went through a fault tree analysis; we looked at all the potential causes, used facts and data to eliminate all the potential causes, and hone in on the root cause.

So this remains the cause that we talked about in about the October timeframe, of this combination within the valve of the nitrogen tetraoxide or the NTO, ambient moisture, and the aluminum housing of the valve. So you need all three of those aspects to come together in order for the first two, the NTO and the ambient moisture, to react to create nitric acid, which then reacts with the aluminum housing of the valve causing corrosion products and those corrosion products then result in preventing the valve motion which is a very very small motion like 30 mil (millimeter) of motion and just the presence of those corrosion products can hinder that progress.

So that's the root cause that we've had. We've completed testing both on and off the vehicle. So we did return the vehicle to the factory as you know. We did a lot of testing on service module two with the valves that had experienced this issue to understand the behavior and really hone in on what we were seeing. We have also been able to remove those valves since then and do disassembly of valves, a valve that was stuck, a valve that was intermittent, and a valve that wasn't stuck. And what we saw within those valves were these corrosion products as we've mentioned. So we were able to confirm the presence of those products in the way that I just said. We've also done off-vehicle material testing, and we've done off-vehicle valve testing with valves that had not been on the spacecraft at White Sands to confirm the generation of these corrosion products that these three constituents present. And in that testing also we have exposed those valves to the environmental conditions that the valves had seen and also those environmental conditions that we expect to be seen on OFT-2 and confirmed that our mitigation methods are appropriate.

So again as I talk a little bit about the mitigation that we've put in place, and Mark has touched on this also. As I mentioned in order to have this reaction, you need these three components, the NTO, the moisture the ambient moisture in the air, and the aluminum housing. Without those three components, you don't get the reaction. So without the moisture, if you can eliminate the moisture from the valve, you won't have this reaction and it won't lead to corrosion. So we've done a number of things for the mitigation, including a dry purge of the valves, so the valves have compartments through which we've got CN2 purging the valves to prevent any moisture from getting into the valve.

We've also sealed out a potential moisture path in the electrical connector to ensure that we don't get any ambient humidity through that path. So those two things will prevent the moisture from getting into the valve to start that reaction at all. And then in addition we've loaded the NTO later, Mark mentioned the vehicle is loaded, we do that loading later in the flow so there's less time of exposure of the NTO. And we've added operationally we've added cycling of the valves every two to five days post-load until the time that we launch to ensure that the valves remain operational. We've been doing that cycling, we've done that successfully, we'll continue to do that. The last cycle will be on the 17th and then during the nominal countdown launch procedure on the 19th we'll cycle the valves again.

Boeing's Starliner sits on top of the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in July last year. Image: Boeing/John Grant

Later on in the event, Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press attempted to steer the conversation away from the technical side of things to the motivational angle and asked the Boeing representatives whether they were frustrated by watching SpaceX regularly launch crews to the ISS.

In response, Ms. Parker stated:

. . .Our focus is really getting to the pad safely, getting through the mission safely, learning as much as we can and being able to provide a great service to our NASA customer and that's our focus right now. I think there are a lot of exciting things going on in space and as space professionals, we're always excited about everything that goes on. We certainly want to be a part of that. We're looking forward to this successful mission and that's our focus really it's getting to the successful mission and being able to deliver this capability to our customer.

She was joined by Boeing's vice president and program manager for the CST-100 Starliner program, Mr. Mark Nappi, who stressed that safety was paramount for his company.

According to him:

I was just gonna add to that. And I represent the workforce and talk to them frequently and they are professionals, they understand what we're doing here. This is very difficult to build and develop and launch this type of vehicle so they have got, they're laser focused on doing this right and that's really where their minds are. So we're going to do this with the safest and the best quality possible and when we launch we launch.

Finally, NASA's associate administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate Ms. Kathryn Leuders clarified that Boeing and SpaceX were part of the same team and that her agency was grateful to SpaceX for having provided it with the ability to conduct detailed safety investigations while having the option of conducting human spaceflight simultaneously.

As Ms. Leuders explained:

And Marcia, I'd say we're, this is about a team right and so I'm very grateful that Boeing is not, and Stitch is not taking any shortcuts. We're doing it one step at a time. Did extensive testing. Made sure we took hardware off vehicle, went and did detailed failure investigation. Made sure that we really understood this before team vehicles up and bringing them forward into a launch campaign. And so that really showed to me a great deal of maturity and not being in a hurry and obviously we're also very grateful that SpaceX has given us this opportunity to be able to have that time and fly. These are the kinds of things you gotta do when you do human spaceflight. And I think as a joint team with Boeing and SpaceX we've been really grateful to both providers operating in this manner and being able to provide this support.

The NASA-Boeing OFT-2 mission is set to take to the skies from the agency's facilities in Florida on May 19th. If successful, it will pave the way for the pair to conduct the first crewed test for the vehicle after Starliner returns to Earth.

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