Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (2024)

10:36 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (1)

After troubleshooting the issue in May, the space agency said a helium leak recently found within the spacecraft service module is at acceptable levels and did not pose a threat to a mission.

“We looked really hard at what our options were with this particular flange (the part where the leak is located),” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “A fuel line, an oxidizer line and a helium line all go into the flange, which makes it problematic to work on. It makes it almost unsafe to work on.”

Rather than making a replacement to fix the leak, the teams decided that the helium leak is small enough to be manageable, Stich said.

“When we looked at this problem, it didn’t come down to making trades,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of the Commercial Crew Program for Boeing. “It came down to, ‘is it safe or not?’ And it is safe. And that’s why we determined that we could go fly with what we have.”

During the launch countdown Wednesday morning, mission teams monitored the leak, and so far, no issues have been reported.

9:36 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Starliner is making a special, much-needed delivery to the space station

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Last week, two crew suitcases for NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore were swapped out for a critical part needed at their next destination: the International Space Station.

On May 29, a pump on the station's urine processor assembly failed.

“That urine processor takes all of the crew’s urine and processes it in the first step of a water recovery system,” said Dana Weigel, manager for NASA’s International Space Station Program. “It then sends it downstream to a water processor which turns it into drinking water. The station’s really designed to be a closed loop.”

The pump was expected to perform until the fall, and a replacement was set to fly aboard a cargo resupply mission slated for August. But the pump’s failure “put us in a position where we’d have to store an awful lot of urine,” Weigel said.

Now, the urine has to be stored on board in containers.

In other words, Starliner's arrival at the station tomorrow couldn't come at a better time, and ground teams scrambled to make a switch ahead of launch.

A replacement pump was quickly swapped into Starliner’s cargo. The pump weighs about 150 pounds, so the team removed two suitcases from Starliner carrying clothes and toiletries such as shampoo and soaps handpicked by Wilmore and Williams.

There is a contingency supply of generic clothes and toiletries on the space station that the astronaut duo will use instead for their short stay, Weigel said.

9:28 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Here's a peek at the special cargo aboard Starliner

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

In total, Starliner is hauling about 759 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station.

In addition to a replacement pump that will help the closed loop of water continue to flow on the station, the crew is bringing food, clothes, medical supplies, exercise gear, supplies and tools for the vehicle, as well as photo and media equipment.

But some special, more personal items are also packed inside the capsule.

One of those items is a thumb drive, which holds 3,500 images of artwork from children living across 35 US states and 66 different countries.

Wilmore brought two gold rings that resemble the US Navy astronaut pilot wing pin, which he had made for his father and brother, according to NASA. And he is bringing shirts from Tennessee Technological University and the University of Tennessee, his alma maters.

Williams also brought shirts from the US Naval Academy and the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School, located in Needham, Massachusetts, which she considers her hometown, as well as a diver pin and two dog tags from her Labrador retrievers.

9:24 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Meet Suni Williams, a history-making astronaut

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (2)

With this flight, Suni Williams, who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998, will make a bit of history as the mission's pilot. Few women have joined the first flight of a new spacecraft.

And it won't be her first entry in the history books.

In 2012, during a prior trip to the International Space Station, Williams became the first person to finish a triathlon in space, during which she simulated swimming using a weight-lifting machine and ran on a treadmill while strapped in by a harness so she wouldn't float away.

That came after she ran the Boston Marathon from the space station in 2007.

Williams — a native of Needham, Massachusetts — has also spent ample time outside the space station.

During her previous missions, she notched a total of 50 hours and 40 minutes across seven spacewalks, ranking second among female astronauts.

Williams also gave a detailed tour of the space station in 2012, even showing the "orbital outhouse" (aka bathroom). Watch that here.

Ahead of this mission, Williams told reporters that she wasn't nervous about making the jump from test piloting aircraft to spacecraft.

"I don't necessarily think it's jitters," she said. "I'm just thinking it's more like last-minute checks — crossing the t's dotting the i's."

Williams has traveled to space twice before, once on a NASA space shuttle in 2006 and again on a Russian Soyuz capsule in 2012. She's logged 322 total days in space.

9:21 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Meet Butch Wilmore, Starliner's commander

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (3)

For Starliner's debut launch, NASA is sticking with a long tradition of staffing the novel spacecraft with astronauts who have previously trained as military test pilots: Sunita "Suni" Williams and Barry "Butch" Wilmore.

All that time piloting experimental aircraft just might give these astronauts the proverbial "right stuff."

"They're checking out a lot of the systems: the life support, the manual control," NASA chief Bill Nelson said during a May 3 news conference. "That's why we put two test pilots on board — and of course the resumes of Butch and Suni are extensive."

Wilmore — a Tennessee native and Navy test pilot — has spent more than 8,000 hours of his life aboard tactical jets, according to NASA.

Before he was selected for NASA's astronaut corps in 2000, Wilmore was on exchange as flight test instructor at the Air Force Test Pilot School in California.

As an astronaut, Wilmore has already logged 178 days in space during two separate missions and conducted four spacewalks.

Wilmore once recalled a spacewalk experience during a 2018 acceptance speech for the NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award. (Wilmore played football at Tennessee Technological University as an undergrad.)

Wilmore said that, during the spacewalk, he was surprised to find that a radiator on the space station's exterior was reflective, like a mirror.

"All of a sudden, for the first time ever, I see me in a spacesuit from head to toe. ... I look back at that guy and I said, 'How did you get here?'" Wilmore said. "If you have a pulse, that's all that's required. You can endeavor to do anything you want to do."
9:17 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Elon Musk wishes Boeing good luck ahead of launch

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Founder and CEO of SpaceXElon Musk wished Boeing well ahead of today's launch attempt.

Musk shared a livestream of the launch and said he was "wishing them best of luck!" in a post shared to X, formerly known as Twitter.

SpaceX and Boeing have competed under NASA's Commercial Crew Program to provide different ways of reaching the International Space Station.

And SpaceX's mega moon rocket Starship has been approved by the FAA to lift off on its fourth uncrewed flight test this week, with a launch window opening at 8 a.m. ET Thursday. Launch of the Starship capsule atop a Super Heavy rocket will take place from the company's private Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

9:33 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Starliner's hatch closes

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (4)

Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are safely in their seats and the hatch of the Starliner capsule has closed, putting the crew one step closer to launch.

9:50 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Starliner crew is "very ready for this mission"

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (5)

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore have been preparing for today's historic flight for a long time — over five years.

The astronaut duo has been involved in every step of the process to get Starliner ready for its inaugural crewed launch.

Starliner was initially expected to launch on May 6, so the astronauts have been in quarantine to protect their health ahead of the mission since late April, said NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who is slated to serve as pilot for the upcoming Boeing Starliner-1 mission that would follow a successful test flight.

"I am very impressed with my colleagues for being such optimists and and such professionals," Fincke said. "They are very, very excited about today. You can see that they're focused on getting the job done, and they are very ready for this mission."
9:01 a.m. ET, June 5, 2024

Today marks Starliner's third launch attempt in a month

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (6)

Starliner was only about two hours from its first crewed launch attempt on May 6 when engineers identified an issue with a valve on the second stage, or upper portion, of the Atlas V rocket. The entire stack, including the rocket and spacecraft, was rolled back from the launchpad for testing and repairs.

Since then, mission teams have had to work through multiple issues with the capsule and rocket to go for today's third launch attempt within just a month's time.

After the initial scrub on May 6, the teams worked through a helium leak on the spacecraft service module, a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system and an assessment of Starliner's parachutes.

Several issues also cropped up during the June 1 launch attempt, which was called with less than four minutes left on the countdown clock prior to liftoff.

Early in the countdown, teams reported a loss of data for valves responsible for replenishing the liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel flowing into the Atlas V rocket's upper stage.

Then, when Starliner shifted from ground power to internal power, there was a slight increase in voltage that turned off the cabin fans, which keep the astronauts cool as they sit in their spacesuits in the capsule.

Quick actions by the mission teams solved both issues within plenty of time to stay on track for launch.

But moments before liftoff, the ground launch sequencer — the computer that tells the rocket to launch — triggered an automatic hold that prevented the launch.

The United Launch Alliance team investigated the issue and replaced the computer over the weekend, and deemed Starliner ready to fly once more.

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why (2024)

FAQs

Starliner is launching with an 'acceptable' helium leak — here's why? ›

One helium leak had been discovered prior to launch and deemed acceptable. “Helium is used in spacecraft thruster systems to allow the thrusters to fire and is not combustible or toxic,” according to Boeing. As of Thursday morning, two of the three leaks have been corrected, according to a live NASA broadcast.

What is the problem with Starliner? ›

On its voyage to the ISS, helium leaks were detected on Starliner's propulsion system, knocking out some of the 28 thrusters used by the capsule to manoeuvre in space. The astronauts remain safe, and the spacecraft has backup thrusters to compensate for the loss, according to NASA and Boeing.

What is the status of Boeing Starliner? ›

Boeing's Starliner capsule has arrived at its orbital destination. Starliner reached the International Space Station (ISS) today (June 6), making contact with the orbiting lab at 1:34 p.m. EDT (1734 GMT) as the duo flew over the southern Indian Ocean. That was a bit later than originally planned.

How does Starliner return to Earth? ›

Plans call for Wilmore and Williams to remain aboard the station for about eight days, then depart on a return flight that will take Starliner on a fiery reentry back through Earth's atmosphere and end with a parachute and airbag-assisted landing in the U.S. Desert Southwest, a first for a crewed NASA mission.

What is Boeing Starliner spacecraft that is being tested? ›

The Boeing Starliner (or CST-100) is a class of partially reusable spacecraft designed to transport crew to the International Space Station (ISS) and other low-Earth-orbit destinations. It is manufactured by Boeing, with the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) of NASA as the lead customer.

Why does Starliner need helium? ›

“Helium is used in spacecraft thruster systems to allow the thrusters to fire and is not combustible or toxic,” according to Boeing.

Does Starliner have a toilet? ›

Starliner is reusable, with Boeing saying it can be flown on up to 10 missions. The spacecraft sports no toilet—unlike Crew Dragon—and has about the same livable volume as an SUV, making for a relatively cozy rise to and from orbit.

How long does it take for Starliner to get to the ISS? ›

Boeing's long-delayed Starliner space capsule lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying two NASA astronauts and reached orbit about twelve minutes later. The crew will spend the next 25 hours racing to catch up to the International Space Station.

Can the Shuttle bring satellites back to Earth? ›

The Shuttle also has the capacity to return payloads of up to 14 tons back to Earth. This means that orbiting satellites which cannot be repaired by the crew in space can be recovered and returned to Earth for more extensive repair and another launch.

What is the purpose of Boeing Starliner? ›

This is the first crewed flight of the company's Starliner capsule, which was developed in partnership with NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Is Boeing Starliner reusable? ›

Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Dragon are designed to be fully autonomous and reusable.

How much has NASA paid Boeing for Starliner? ›

Boeing was awarded $4.8 billion from NASA in 2014 to develop Starliner, a private industry-built vehicle that can ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Will Boeing Starliner ever fly? ›

Boeing's Starliner capsule launched Wednesday its first astronaut-crewed flight into space to the International Space Station (ISS) after several delays. The liftoff occurred at 10:52 a.m. ET from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Why is Starliner taking so long? ›

There are a lot of wires on a spaceship, so that took a long time. Now they've been trying for weeks, and they've called off the launch twice before this, first for stuck valve, then for a computer glitch. Finally, finally, today, it all came together.

What was wrong with the space shuttle? ›

Challenger's O-rings eroded completely through as predicted, resulting in the complete destruction of the spacecraft and the death of all seven astronauts on board. Columbia was destroyed because of damaged thermal protection from foam debris that broke off from the external tank during ascent.

What is the point of Starliner? ›

The Starliner was designed to accommodate seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit. For NASA service missions to the International Space Station, it will carry up to four NASA-sponsored crew members and time-critical scientific research.

What was the problem with the launch of Skylab? ›

The station was damaged during launch when the micrometeoroid shield tore away from the workshop, taking one of the main solar panel arrays with it and jamming the other main array.

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