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HomeTechnologyFaulty Valves Plague Boeing's New Starliner Crew Capsule

Faulty Valves Plague Boeing’s New Starliner Crew Capsule

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In a warning eerily similar to those made by Morton Thiokol engineers just before the Challenger explosion, a NASA subcontractor has voiced concerns for the safety of Boeing’s new Starliner Crew Capsule.

First set to launch on May 6, Starliner’s first crewed flight was scrubbed less than two hours before liftoff due to what officials described as a “faulty valve” on the Starliner’s Atlas/Centaur second stage. In order to replace the valve, the rocket had to be rolled back from the pad to United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The valve was replaced, and another launch attempt has been scheduled for Friday, May 17.

While faulty valves rank high on the list of reasons for launch delays, they are also among the most critical. Controlling everything from the flow of rocket fuel to electric cells to oxygen flow, the dozens of different valves on a spacecraft must operate perfectly – every time. For that reason, NASA, as well as hardware manufacturers, maintain very precise standards for valve design, manufacturing, and testing in order for them to be “flight certified.” NASA and launch providers such as United Launch Alliance, manufacturer of the Atlas/Centaur booster, and others rely on dozens of subcontractors to manufacture valves and other hardware components. And each of those subcontractors relies on their own NASA-approved subcontractors for hardware design and components.

Such is the case with Starliner, Boeing’s new crew module. The Starliner itself is manufactured by Boeing. Boeing contracts with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide launch services, using ULA’s Atlas/Centaur booster to get the Starliner to orbit. Both companies rely on contractors such as Aerojet Rocketdyne to manufacture their valves. Aerojet, in turn, relies on a company called ValveTech to provide design and components for the valves.

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Things apparently aren’t going well between ValveTech and Aerojet, and on May 8th, ValveTech, who provides 14 different components for valves to NASA contractors, issued a dire warning to NASA in a public news 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,” said ValveTech President Erin Faville.
“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,” Faville added.

The warning by ValveTech comes following litigation finalized last year after a court awarded $800,000 to ValveTech. In that litigation, a court ruled that Aerojet violated at least two non-disclosure agreements. The alleged violations included “improperly disclosing, retaining, or using ValveTech’s valves, designs, technology, and data.

During testimony involving that case, a witness testified that “the Aerojet valve was not qualified to the right specifications, and not evaluated to ensure safety protocols”. ValveTech went on to say that Aerojet has not made any changes to the valve design since that testimony.

While the valve in dispute during the court case was not the same one that failed on the Atlas/Centaur booster, it was one used by Boeing in the Service Module component of Starliner. If ValveTech’s assertation is correct, the questionable valve is still in use in on the Starliner.

Answering a request for comment on ValveTech’s release, a NASA official told the Hernando Sun: “Flying safely is the top priority for NASA. The valve that caused the launch scrub on Monday, May 6, was part of the Atlas V rocket’s Centaur upper-stage liquid oxygen system, not on the Starliner spacecraft or its service module. The scrub was called for by the launch team and the valve is being replaced by United Launch Alliance ahead of the next launch attempt.

In early 2024, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program independently performed due diligence related to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner OMAC Isolation Valve design, hardware and qualification testing. NASA’s conclusions were consistent with Boeing’s evaluation and testing of the system, and with other hardware for this type of application and mission use. As with all human spaceflight component systems, NASA will continue to review any safety concerns that arise.”

ULA CEO Tory Bruno commented briefly in a Tweet on X (formerly Twitter) “Not sure what to say about this one. Close to none of it is correct. Not urgent. Not Leaking, etc. Remarkable that the particular person quoted doesn’t seem to know how this type of valve works.” ULA did not respond to a formal request for comment by the Hernando Sun.

Boeing, the manufacturer of the Starliner, was one of a handful of companies awarded a contract worth $4.2 billion by NASA in 2014 to develop a commercial crew module. SpaceX was also awarded a commercial crew contract for the development of the Dragon Crew module worth $2.6 billion. While Boeing has struggled with delays, quality control, and cost overruns in getting to this first Starliner crewed launch, SpaceX‘s Crew Dragon is already flight-certified and has been taking crews to and from the International Space Station for over four years.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams head to the pad for May 6th’s Starliner launch attempt. [Photo: Mark Stone/FMN]
NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams head to the pad for May 6th’s Starliner launch attempt. [Photo: Mark Stone/FMN]

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