The Boeing Starliner was scrapped minutes before takeoff

Boeing’s first attempt to fly its Starliner space shuttle with astronauts was scrapped Saturday less than four minutes before liftoff. The delay was called for by an automated computer system that takes flight queues in the final minutes of the countdown.

NASA plans a backup launch attempt on a United Launch Alliance-operated Atlas V rocket at 12:03 p.m. Sunday.

At a briefing Saturday afternoon, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said one of the three computer systems that orchestrate the launch sequence in the final minutes of the countdown — for example, by releasing the clamps that hold the rocket — was slow to come online. As a result, the automated system ended the countdown. ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

He said teams would go to the launch pad to inspect the computer system. If it can be fixed soon, the rocket will be launched on Sunday. Otherwise, NASA also has launch opportunities scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

Boeing is eager to get the mission off the ground. It will send NASA astronauts Sunitha Williams and Butch Willmore to the International Space Station for about a week to test how the spacecraft fares with humans.

“I know it’s a little disappointing,” Steve Stich, chief of NASA’s Commercial Group program, said of the delay. “We were all excited, Butch and Suni were excited to fly. It’s kind of a space flight … every time you go to pad for a crewed flight or really any flight, you’ve got a chance to scrub.

He added, “Today you can see how close we are. We have this capability ready. We were three minutes and 50 seconds away and a Starliner shuttle was ready to go.

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Given the fact that the spacecraft has never flown with people, NASA and Boeing’s teams have repeatedly said they should proceed with caution and not attempt to fly the mission until they think they can do so safely.

The flight test was originally scheduled for May 6 with the crew on board. But the flight was delayed when a valve malfunctioned in the second stage of the rocket. The valve has since been replaced and was working fine on Saturday, officials said.

The launch was part of NASA’s “Commercial Crew Program,” which outsourced transportation to the space station to Boeing and SpaceX.

SpaceX dominates commercial rocket and spacecraft production; It first flew astronauts and completed its first crewed test mission in May 2020. That flight was a major coup for NASA as it led to its crew being sent into space. In 2011, the space shuttle was retired, forcing NASA to rely on Russia to fly people to the station until SpaceX began flying.

Boeing’s Starliner has faced setbacks and delays. As expected two test flights had to be flown without a crew on board. First, in late 2019, the rocket’s internal computer shut down for 11 hours, preventing the spacecraft from reaching the station. The next attempt, in 2022, reached the space station. However, the company later discovered that the tape used to cover electrical wiring in the capsule was flammable and that its parachutes needed to be upgraded.

In the lead up to Saturday’s flight, Boeing and NASA officials expressed optimism, saying they had done everything they could to ensure the mission was a success.

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