June 22, 2024

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft sits atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 after the planned launch of NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test was scrubbed on May 07, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

After a last minute delay of the debut mission of the Boeing Starliner earlier this week, a NASA contractor is warning the space agency that potentially disastrous problems may still lurk in the Atlas V rocket.

NASA delayed the crewed debut mission for the Boeing Starliner on Monday, just two hours before the scheduled launch at Kennedy Space Center. On Wednesday, space agency contractor ValveTech publicly called for the launch to be put on hold until the Starliner is deemed safe and warned of a potential disaster. The delay was ordered to replace a pressure regulation valve on the Atlas V rocket’s liquid oxygen tank. NASA won’t attempt another launch until at least May 17.

NASA stated that Monday’s launch was called off because of “the oscillating behavior of the valve during prelaunch operations.” During preparations, the valve was closed to dampen the buzzing but it happened again twice during fuel removal operations. ValveTech sees this oscillating behavior as a possible symptom of a large problem. ValveTech President Erin Faville said in a release:

“As a valued NASA partner and as valve experts, we strongly urge them not to attempt a second launch due to the risk of a disaster occurring on the launchpad. According to media reports, a buzzing sound indicating the leaking valve was noticed by someone walking by the Starliner minutes before launch. This sound could indicate that the valve has passed its lifecycle.”

“NASA needs to re-double safety checks and re-examine safety protocols to make sure the Starliner is safe before something catastrophic happens to the astronauts and to the people on the ground.”

NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion Commercial Crew Transportation contract in September 2014, alongside $2.6 billion to SpaceX. The Starliner’s first crewed launch was initially scheduled for 2017. However, development delays and technical problems pushed back the launch until this month. The delays have cost Boeing $1.5 billion in charges.

While the Starlined has struggled, the Atlas V rocket is a proven launch vehicle and has been in service since 2002. The Atlas V was designed by Lockheed Martin and is currently produced by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The rocket is nearing retirement with only 17 launches left before it’s replaced by the ULA’s Vulcan, the collaboration’s first new rocket design.

ValveTech’s concerns carry the weight that a disaster would endanger the lives of astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams as well as people on the ground. Boeing’s quality control woes would be escalated to an astronomic scale far beyond a blown-out door plug on an Alaska Airlines flight, shoddily built airliners and two dead whistleblowers. 

A version of this article originally appeared on Jalopnik.

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