Boeing’s Crucial Spacecraft Mission Delayed After Accident On Space Station

NASA Boeing Starliner 2021
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

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The Boeing Company's crucial launch for its Starliner spacecraft originally set to take place tomorrow has been delayed due to an accident on board the International Space Station (ISS) earlier today confirmed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Starliner was set to take to the skies as part of NASA's OFT-2 (Orbital Flight Test 2) mission tomorrow at 14:43 EDT from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, after a malfunction in 2019 which caused it to miss its docking with the ISS and land in the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test Delayed After International Space Station Goes Off Attitude

The announcement was made by NASA moments ago after its mission control center in Houston Texas navigated through the ISS losing its attitude. The accident happened after the Russian Nauka module docked with the station earlier today, and as part of its integration with the orbiting laboratory, its thrusters started to misfire.

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This misfiring caused the ISS to go off attitude by 45 degrees explained a NASA communications officer and the change was corrected by the Russian Progress 78 cargo ship and the Zvezda module firing their own thrusters to reorient the ISS. In spacecraft terminology, attitude refers to the orientation of a body, and NASA explained that prompt action by the Russian mission control center in Moscow ensured that the station remained on course.

It was corrected roughly an hour later after the ISS passed over a Russian ground station. Soon afterward, NASA confirmed in a blog post that it and Boeing had decided to stand down from the launch to ensure that the ISS would be "ready for Starliner's arrival."

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Image: Boeing

The delay comes after Boeing explained during a press conference earlier today some of the communications problems which had stopped the OFT-2 test in 2019.

When asked by a NASASpaceflight reported about the "root cause" of the failure and the fixes, Boeing's Director of Starliner Mission, former United States Navy pilot and NASA astronaut, Mr. Christopher Ferguson replied that:

So there were a couple. You know one of them had to do with locking on to a bad TEDRIS frequency. We've got plenty of mitigations in place for that. In fact for the crewed flight test, we are going to roll on a new communications transceiver that is a little more robust and resistant to that. But we have mitigation ways to detect if we have what we call a false lock. And we'll break that lock and will reacquire. So that's one of them. Another one we discovered that we were really looking a little too close with our antennas to the Earth's horizon.

And therefore we were picking up a lot of interfering frequencies and those interfering frequencies all fall in the region of cellphones. Believe it or not. So we now have actually canted our view of the horizon. We sort of mask out out that noisy area. And we've taken other measures. We point ourselves in what we call communications friendly attitudes to try to make sure that we minimize our exposure to that noise. So I think the biggest thing is for the crewed flight test and subsequent we're going to roll on a new transceiver which will really permanently put a lot of these issues behind us but in the interim we've got a lot of good measures in place to ensure we have good comm throughout the flight.

The new date for the OFT-2 mission is yet to be revealed, but unconfirmed reports suggest that NASA is in discussions with the United States Air Force to determine whether a launch for Saturday is possible.

Update 16:44 EDT, July 29, 2021: During a media teleconference, NASA's Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich stated that the earliest possible launch date for Starliner is Tuesday, August 3, 13:20 EDT.

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