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Boeing and NASA are pressing forward with the launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to carry U.S. astronauts for the first time despite a “stable” leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system. Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and manager of the Commercial Crew program, mentioned during a press conference that the causes for the leak have been identified and are manageable, reassuring that it is not a safety of flight issue. The company is now targeting June 1 for the first crewed launch of the spacecraft with backup opportunities on June 2, June 5, and June 6.

The Starliner Crew Flight Test, intended to be the final major development test of the capsule by sending a pair of NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station before routine missions, has faced several delays. SpaceX’s competing Dragon capsule has been flying astronauts for NASA regularly since 2020 under the Commercial Crew program while Starliner’s crew debut has been pushed back by years. Boeing has incurred substantial costs due to these setbacks, amounting to $1.5 billion, in addition to the nearly $5 billion of NASA development funds.

NASA and Boeing faced technical challenges during the May 6 launch attempt as an issue was detected with the Atlas V rocket, which would lift Starliner into orbit. The problematic valve on the rocket was replaced a week after the launch was postponed. However, a “small” helium leak in Starliner was identified post the launch attempt cancellation, prompting new safety assessments for the spacecraft. The source of the leak is believed to be a seal in one of the flanges of the spacecraft’s helium propulsion system.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, Steve Stich, mentioned that the leak rate hasn’t changed despite testing after the May 6 postponement. The plan is to closely monitor the leak leading up to the launch and reevaluate the leak rate after the spacecraft reaches the International Space Station. Stich expressed confidence that the other seals will not leak and referenced past missions where vehicles with small helium leaks have been flown, including missions by the Space Shuttle and SpaceX’s Dragon. NASA, Boeing, and ULA plan to hold another review on May 29 to assess the leak before rolling out the rocket and capsule to the launch pad on May 30 for the June 1 launch attempt.

Despite the technical challenges faced by Boeing and NASA, the decision to move forward with the Starliner’s crewed launch showcases the resilience and determination of both entities to ensure the success of the mission. The meticulous safety assessments and leak monitoring procedures demonstrate the commitment to prioritizing astronaut safety and mission success above all else. As the teams prepare for the upcoming review and launch attempt, the collaboration and expertise of all parties involved will be crucial in achieving a successful milestone in space exploration.

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