The Boeing Starliner crew discovers new helium leaks en route to the space station

After a successful launch a decade in the making, the Boeing Starliner mission is facing new issues en route to the International Space Station, according to NASA.

The space agency said late Wednesday in a post on X that two additional helium leaks were detected on the vehicle. One helium leak was discovered prior to launch and was deemed acceptable.

“Teams have identified three helium leaks on the spacecraft. One of these was discussed before flight as well as a management plan,” NASA shared in the post. “The other two are new since the spacecraft came into orbit. Two of the affected helium valves have been closed and the spacecraft remains stable.”

A related exchange took place earlier on a NASA broadcast.

Just as astronauts Butch Willmore and Suni Williams were about to go to sleep for the night, mission control informed them that they needed to close two valves due to a new helium leak.

“Looks like we picked up a few more helium leaks,” mission control told the astronauts, as heard on the broadcast. The controllers then walked the team through the plan to shut the shutters down.

“We’re ready to…find out exactly what you mean by picking up another helium leak, so give it to us,” Wilmore told them.

“Butch, I’m sorry. We’re still piecing the story together,” mission control replied.

Since then, NASA and Boeing have determined that the crew is safe and told them to go to sleep while they continue to look at the data. The crew was supposed to sleep for nine hours, but the troubleshooting effort cut into an hour of their rest.

“We’ve got some issues to look at overnight with the helium leaks that have just come up, and we’ve got a lot of smart people down here on the ground that are going to look at this stuff and keep an eye on it. , but the vehicle is currently in a configuration where they are safe to fly,” Boeing aerospace engineer Brandon Burroughs said on a NASA broadcast.

Meanwhile, “the crew continues to make their way to the (ISS) and is in a sleep period,” according to the post from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

It is not yet clear what the impact of the leaks will be, but there is every indication that the plan is still for Starliner to dock with the International Space Station on Thursday.

Historical address

The highly anticipated Starliner mission lifted off atop an Atlas V rocket on Wednesday at 10:52 am from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The historic launch was the first time the spacecraft carried a crew to space.

The mission, called the Crew Flight Test, is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and expand the United States’ options for ferrying astronauts to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The federal agency’s initiative aims to foster collaboration with private industry partners.

The flight marks only the sixth inaugural flight of a crewed spacecraft in U.S. history, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted in a news conference in May.

“It started with Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo, the space shuttle, then (SpaceX’s) Dragon — and now Starliner,” Nelson said.

Williams also made history as the first woman to fly aboard such a mission.

“This is another milestone in the extraordinary history of NASA,” Nelson said Wednesday after the launch. “And I want to personally congratulate all the staff who have gone through a lot of trial and tribulation. But they persevered and that’s what we do at NASA. We don’t ship until it’s right.”

After spending just over 24 hours traveling to the space station, Williams and Wilmore were expected to spend about eight days living in the orbiting laboratory, joining the seven astronauts and cosmonauts on board. already.

Weeks of troubleshooting

Several issues caused the previous crewed launch attempts, on May 6 and June 1, to be scrapped.

Two hours before the launch attempt on May 6, engineers identified a problem with a valve on the second stage, or upper part, of the Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The entire stack, including the rocket and spacecraft, was rolled back from the pad for testing and repairs.

Crews also worked through a small helium leak inside the spacecraft service module and a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system.

After troubleshooting the initial helium leak in May, mission specialists determined it was not a threat to the flight. During the countdown to the launch on Wednesday morning, crews monitored the leak and reported no issues.

Starliner was just 3 minutes and 50 seconds from liftoff Saturday afternoon, when the ground launch sequencer, or the computer that launched the rocket, triggered an automatic hold.

United Launch Alliance technicians and engineers assessed the ground support equipment over the weekend, examining three large computers housed inside a shelter at the base of the launch pad. All computers are identical, providing triple redundancy to ensure the safe launch of crewed missions.

Engineers isolated the issue that halted Saturday’s launch attempt to a single ground power supply within one of the computers, which supplies power to the computer cards responsible for key countdown events, according to an update shared by NASA.

They removed the computer and replaced it with a spare.

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