March 4, 2024

For Boeing’s Starliner spaceship, NASA certainly hopes the second time is the stimulus. But the agency has to wait a little longer.

An orbital capsule launch scheduled for 1:20 p.m. Eastern Time was postponed Tuesday morning. A Boeing statement said its engineers discovered “unexpected valve position indicators in the propulsion system.”

Depending on how long it takes to fix the problem, Boeing said it could try again on Wednesday, although the weather at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida may not cooperate.

Boeing is one of two companies that NASA has hired to get their astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (SpaceX is the other with its Crew Dragon spaceship.)

Two years ago, Boeing seemed to be well on its way to bringing the first astronauts on board.

What was left was a demonstration flight without astronauts on board, which took off in December 2019. Embarrassingly, things went wrong almost immediately, exposing faulty software and reminding of problems Boeing’s aviation division had with the 737 Max jet, resulting in two fatal crashes.

Not only was Starliner not ready for astronauts, it took Boeing more than a year to analyze what went wrong, rewrite its software, and confirm that the spacecraft is trustworthy.

This is actually the second delay in a week: Starliner was scheduled to launch on Friday. But then events in orbit around the earth intervened.

Russia had launched a new space station module, Nauka, which was successfully docked Thursday morning. But then Naucasus engines accidentally started firing again, causing the International Space Station to spin and spinning about one and a half times before the controllers got it back under control after about an hour.

The space station doesn’t seem to have weathered its unplanned gym routine any worse, but NASA managers wanted to take the time to make sure. Due to secret military operations in Cape Canaveral over the weekend, the next launch opportunity was on Tuesday afternoon.

When it takes off, the spaceship will spend about 24 hours in orbit before reaching and docking with the space station.

The objectives of this demonstration flight include checking the energy, navigation and communication systems. But the biggest goal is to test the docking system, which went untested on the first flight.

There won’t be any astronauts on board, but the capsule won’t be empty. In the commandant’s seat sits Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin equipped with 15 sensors to collect data on the conditions people will experience during the flight. Rosie was on board during the first Starliner voyage.

The capsule also carries 400 pounds of cargo and supplies to the space station.

Starliner is said to remain docked at the space station for five to ten days before returning to Earth and landing with parachutes and a large airbag in the desert in the western United States (in contrast to the SpaceX capsule, which lands in the ocean off Florida).