In curious move, NASA lays blame on ULA for latest Starliner delay

In what has largely been an open secret for several weeks, NASA and Boeing formally announced the delay to Starliner’s upcoming uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) that had been scheduled for this month.  The NASA statement says OFT is now targeting a “working date” in August 2019.

But the most curious part of the announcement was the NASA statement’s desire to place the blame for this delay on Starliner’s launch provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA).

In the statement released this morning, NASA stated that Starliner’s uncrewed OFT mission was being delayed to a “working date” in August 2019 because of “limited launch opportunities in April and May, as well as a critical U.S. Air Force national security launch – AEHF-5 – atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 in June.”

This is a curious statement given that the OFT Starliner mission NET April launch target has been known by all parties for months.

At face value, the statement would seem to indicate an ever-present desire for various companies to work with one another to give certain missions priority on the launch schedule and the Eastern Range.

However, when taken into context for the amount of time it would take ULA to stack an Atlas V rocket, integrate Starliner, and for Boeing and ULA to perform all of the needed integration tests between the crew vehicle and the rocket, this statement makes little sense.

In short, ULA would have had to start stacking the Atlas V for the OFT mission back in February at the latest to ensure the rocket, its two solid rocket motors, and dual engine Centaur upper stage were ready for Starliner integration and the myriad of tests that would have to take place before a launch could move forward.

The fact that ULA never started stacking the Atlas V for the OFT mission, which until this morning carried a target launch date of this month, is evidence that ULA was informed earlier in the year that Boeing would not be ready for the April target and was instructed not to stack the Atlas V for this mission.

ULA is an extremely reliable launch provider, and they would not have forgone stacking an Atlas V rocket for a critical mission for NASA and the Commercial Crew Program without an express directive to hold off on rocket build-up.

All of this points to a known delay to the Starliner schedule well in advance of today’s announcement and makes the decision to place the blame on ULA’s launch schedule all the more curious and suspect.

In fact, NASA’s own statement this morning confirms that Boeing is not yet done building, integrating, and testing the OFT Starliner – calling into even more question why ULA’s single Atlas V mission in June was used as the primary scapegoat for the mission’s delay to a “working date in August.”

Starliner launches atop an Atlas V N22 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, carrying new crewmembers to the International Space Station (Credit: Nathan Koga, for NSF/L2).

The NASA statement also did not reveal when Boeing believes Starliner will actually be ready for the OFT mission and if it will be ready for the now “working date” of August 2019.

In fact, NASA provided evidence in the release that the delay is actually due to the OFT Starliner not being ready for flight (though the release did not state this as the reason for the delay) – countering their own statement that ULA’s “limited launch availability” was the reason.

According to NASA’s release, “Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft for the uncrewed flight test is nearly complete.  On March 11, Boeing mated the upper and lower domes of the same spacecraft inside its Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“The two domes underwent outfitting with avionics, cooling systems, wire harnesses, fuel and life support lines, and other critical systems before being mated together. This is one of the last major milestones ahead of final processing and closeouts for flight.

“Another key milestone for the capsule included successful range of motion testing on the docking adapter – known as the NASA Docking System, or NDS – that will connect Starliner to the Space Station’s Harmony module later this year.”

The fact that all of these critical last major milestones were happening in March 2019 speaks volumes to the reality of OFT Starliner’s schedule and highlights quite clearly that ULA is not in any way to blame for this latest delay.

Moreover, ULA should not in any way be blamed for having other customers and missions that an again-delayed Starliner now has to fit around.

Even more so, Boeing has yet to conduct the Pad Abort Test for Starliner that was added to their testing schedule following a critical failure of the Starliner abort propulsion system during hold-down testing last year.

The abort propulsion system would pull a Starliner and its crew away from a failing Atlas V rocket and is a critical and necessary safety component.

Starliner’s Pad Abort Test now carries a NET (No Earlier Than) Summer 2019 schedule with no specific month for a target, and the NASA release notes that “As a precursor to the abort, [Boeing] is preparing to restart its Service Module Hot Fire test campaign at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico this spring.

“New hardware, including launch abort engine valves, have been redesigned and manufactured and are being installed on the test abort engines. The next set of new hardware will soon be installed in the pad abort service module.”

Abort testing Starliner – by Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

This again sheds confirmatory light on the fact that the delay of the OFT mission to August is not due to ULA but due to Boeing and Starliner schedules.

All of this together begs the serious question of why the NASA release placed onus for the delay first and foremost on ULA and the Atlas V launch schedule – especially since ULA would have been told by Boeing not to stack the Atlas V for an April mission of Starliner months ago and since it is clear from this release that Starliner itself is not yet ready to fly.

Had NASA made clear in their release that Starliner would be ready to fly in June but that a previously scheduled National Security launch coupled with the additional Starliner delays now created a ULA manifest where a NET August was the earliest possible date from a rocket schedule standpoint, that would have been one thing.

But no readiness date for the OFT Starliner is presented in the release, and a “working date”, not a NET date, of August for OFT is language couched in uncertainty even for this updated schedule.

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