Boeing Starliner launch could be delayed by several months

Boeing The launch of Co.’s Starliner space capsule could be delayed for several months because the company will likely have to remove it from the top of a rocket for repairs, people familiar with the matter said.

Such a delay would be a setback for Boeing’s space program. The company has spent years developing the Starliner and was supposed to launch it late last month to dock with the International Space Station, unmanned on board, after an unsuccessful attempt a year and a half ago. Ultimately, the capsule is supposed to transport the astronauts to the space station.

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Boeing engineers have been working to fix an issue with some of the valves in a Starliner’s propulsion system that was discovered earlier this month while the vehicle was sitting on a launch pad. The company first said it was investigating the valve issues last week and revealed on Monday that 13 valves did not open as expected during preflight checks.

Nine of the valves are now working and Boeing engineers are working to fix the other four, the company said Thursday.

“Over the past two days, our team has taken the time necessary to safely access and test the affected valves,” said John Vollmer, a Boeing executive overseeing the Starliner.

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The company also said it will work with NASA and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between it and Lockheed Martin Corp. which provides the rocket to take the Starliner into space, to determine a date for another launch “when the spaceship is ready”.

Boeing and NASA said Monday they had not abandoned the potential Starliner launch in August. NASA then said the earliest possible date for another attempt would be in the middle of this month.

Other missions are also planned for the space station, making it difficult when the Starliner can again attempt to reach the facility without crew members. NASA has said a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo from Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Elon Musk’s official SpaceX name, will be launched for the station later this month.

In this image provided by NASA, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on board sits at Space Launch Complex 41 on Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Florida. Boeing-2 Orbital Flight Test, SC (Joel Kowsky / NASA via AP / AP Newsroom)

The agency also plans to launch a ship to study asteroids no earlier than mid-October from the location of the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida, where engineers are currently working on the Starliner. NASA has previously said any date for another Starliner launch would protect the asteroid’s mission.

NASA and Boeing officials are expected to discuss the Starliner at a press conference on Friday. The space agency said Thursday it was discussing the status of the mission with Boeing.

As teams continued to work on the valve issue, separating the Starliner from the rocket became increasingly necessary, according to people familiar with the matter.

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Ahead of Starliner’s return to service, NASA and Boeing officials said in July that they had subjected the spacecraft to rigorous and intensive testing to ensure a successful test.

In December 2019, a Boeing software error prevented the Starliner from getting into the correct orbit and it never docked with the space station. Another potentially catastrophic error was corrected during the mission to prevent damage to the spacecraft’s protective heat shield.

The botched 2019 space mission came as Boeing grappled with the fallout from two fatal crashes to its 737 MAX passenger plane. Company executives have since sought to revamp the way the company handles engineering, safety and quality issues.

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NASA has said it wants to have two US-based companies to transport astronauts to and from the space station. Currently, the agency has a confirmed supplier, SpaceX, in place for these flights. His second option is to contract for seats on Russian rockets.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Micah Maidenberg at micah.maidenberg@wsj.com

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