It might be time for NASA to bail on Boeing’s Starliner



In a not-very-shocking-at-all twist, NASA has put the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner on hold once again. That pesky helium leak discovered earlier in May continued to plague the capsule, and the engineers are struggling to find a solution that works to get things back on track.

It might be surprising now, with all the delays and Boeing’s ongoing fight with manufacturing issues, but there was a time when Starliner was actually a very promising option for space exploration. Boeing had already proven its ability to be a premier aircraft provider, and it seemed on track to do the same thing with spacecraft.

Unfortunately, nearly a decade later, any hopes and dreams that might have rested on Starliner’s shoulders have since started to fall away, replaced by successes from other companies — like SpaceX — and repeated failures and issues plaguing Boeing’s capsule.

It’s been over ten years since Boeing won its NASA contract to develop the spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, and now that we’re in the final stretch, the spacecraft has yet to fly any humans to space. Not only has the program seen repeated delays — including the most recent launch holds — but the program has also been plagued by manufacturing issues.

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Image source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Things like corroded valves and even severe software errors have helped hold Starliner back while SpaceX and its Dragon spacecraft have continued to step in to fill that void. Perhaps one of the most egregious issues was the fact that Boeing discovered issues with the design of its parachute system and the fact that it had used flammable tape inside the capsule. This delayed the first crewed launch from its original 2023 launch date, and no, over a year later, we’re still waiting.

Mistakes happen, especially when you’re creating something that has to be designed to survive the harshness of space. But with NASA still holding off the launch due to an ongoing helium leak they can’t figure out how to fix, I can’t help but wonder why NASA and Boeing continue to pour money into Starliner when all the cards seemed stacked against it.

The two astronauts set to travel to the International Space Station onboard the capsule for its first crewed flight are certainly braver than most to put their trust in Starliner’s terrifying history. With the latest launch date canceled, and NASA not even nothing to reschedule, though, I do wonder if we might finally be seeing the beginning of the end for Starliner.

I know NASA desperately wants another company to rely on for space launches, as a monopoly certainly gives the Elon Musk-led SpaceX a huge advantage. But if that freedom comes with the risk that Boeing’s capsule certainly seems to offer, is it really worth it?

To me, it isn’t. But maybe NASA and Boeing will finally figure things out, and we’ll see Starliner become the masterwork that Boeing has always wanted it to be. I suppose only time will tell. For the time being, though, I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.


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