Maybe it’s time for NASA to bail on Boeing’s Starliner

In a not-so-shocking twist, NASA has once again suspended the first crew launch of Boeing’s Starliner. A pesky helium leak discovered in May continues to plague the capsule, and engineers are scrambling to find a solution to get things back on track.

With all the delays, it might be surprising now Boeing’s production problems continue, but there was a time when the Starliner was actually a very promising option for space exploration. Boeing had already proven its mettle as a premier aircraft provider, and appeared to be on track to do the same with the space shuttle.

Unfortunately, after nearly a decade, any hopes and dreams that may have rested on Starliner’s shoulders began to crumble, replaced by the successes of other companies like SpaceX and the continuing failures and problems that plagued Boeing’s capsule.

It’s been more than ten years since Boeing won the NASA contract to build the shuttle to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, and now we’re in the final stages, and the shuttle has yet to fly humans into space. The program has seen repeated delays — including the most recent releases — but the program has also been plagued by production issues.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Things like corroded valves and serious software bugs helped ground Starliner, while SpaceX and its Dragon spacecraft continue to step in to fill the void. Perhaps one of the worst problems was the fact that Boeing discovered problems with the design of its parachute system. Flammable tape was used inside the capsule. This delayed the first team release from its original 2023 release date, and no, a year later, we’re still waiting.

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Mistakes happen, especially when you’re building something that needs to be designed to withstand the rigors of space. But since NASA has yet to stop a launch due to a helium leak they can’t figure out how to fix, I can’t help but wonder why NASA and Boeing are pouring money into Starliner with all the cards stacked against it.

Two astronauts about to travel to the International Space Station in a capsule for its first crewed flight are certainly braver than the Starliner’s terrifying history would have us believe. With the latest launch date cancellation, NASA has done nothing to reschedule, however, and I wonder if we may finally be seeing the beginning of the end for Starliner.

I know that NASA desperately wants another company to rely on space launches, as a monopoly would certainly give Elon Musk-led SpaceX a huge advantage. But if that freedom appears to be what Boeing’s capsule certainly offers, is it really worth it?

For me, it doesn’t. But maybe NASA and Boeing will finally figure things out, and we’ll see the Starliner become the masterpiece Boeing always wanted it to be. I guess only time will tell. For now, I guess I won’t hold my breath.

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