NASA, Boeing Push Ahead With Starliner Launch Despite Helium Leak And Design Flaw

NASA and Boeing are moving forward with the June 1 launch of the Starliner capsule, marking the spacecraft’s first crewed mission, despite the presence of a “stable” helium leak in its propulsion system. The decision comes after the initial May 6 launch attempt was postponed due to the leak and an issue with the Atlas V rocket that will lift Starliner into orbit.

Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi expressed confidence in the company’s ability to manage the leak, stating, “We know we can manage this [leak], so this is really not a safety of flight issue.” However, during the two-week testing period following the postponement, engineers also discovered a design flaw in the propulsion system that could, under specific and unlikely circumstances, prevent the deorbit burn required for the crew’s safe return to Earth.

Despite the 0.77% chance of the combination of events that could lead to a failed deorbit burn, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich emphasized that the agency has “flown vehicles with small helium leaks” before, including missions by the Space Shuttle and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The engineering team has developed a workaround for the design flaw, and all parties involved have “got comfortable” with the flight rationale and actions taken.

As the launch date approaches, NASA, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) will conduct another review on May 29 to assess the leak before rolling out the rocket and capsule to the launch pad on May 30. The mission, dubbed the Starliner Crew Flight Test, will serve as the final major development test for the capsule before it begins routine missions to the International Space Station.