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Launch of Boeing's Starliner has been postponed indefinitely

The long-awaited manned maiden voyage of the Boeing Starliner which was scheduled for this Saturday (25) was postponed — and so far NASA has not announced a new date. “The team has been in meetings for two consecutive days, evaluating flight justification, system performance and redundancy,” the agency said in a statement. “There is still work to be done in these areas, and the next launch opportunity is still being discussed.”

The update comes after several earlier delays this month and a week after Starliner mission teams reported a small helium leak in the spacecraft's service module. They traced the leak to a part called a flange on a single thruster's reaction control system, where helium is used to allow the thrusters to work.

A few days ago, NASA announced that teams were not planning to launch before May 25, saying that the additional time before launch would give experts more time to evaluate the problem, although analyzes up to that point had found that the leak had not represents a threat to the mission.

“Pressure tests performed on May 15 on the spacecraft's helium system showed that the flange leak is stable and would not pose a risk at this level during flight,” the space agency said in a press release last Friday. (17).

“It was also indicated that the remainder of the thruster system is effectively sealed throughout the service module. Boeing teams are working to develop operational procedures to ensure the system maintains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during flight.”

This mission, called the Crew Flight Test, could be the last major milestone before NASA considers the Boeing spacecraft ready for routine operations as part of the federal agency's Commercial Crew Program. The historic flight was about two hours away from launch on May 6 when it was canceled due to a problem with a valve in the second stage, or upper part, of the Atlas V rocket that will take the Starliner into space.

The NASA astronauts assigned to crew the mission for a weeklong stay at the International Space Station, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, were in pre-flight quarantine but returned to Houston on May 10 to spend time with their families, said Boeing last week.

“NASA will share more details once we have a clearer path forward,” the space agency said in its latest statement.

Boeing's historic goals

The Crew Flight Test has been in development for a decade — the result of Boeing's efforts to develop a spacecraft worthy of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station under NASA's commercial program.

The launch would mark just the sixth maiden voyage of a crewed spacecraft in U.S. history, space agency administrator Bill Nelson noted at a press conference earlier this month. “It started with Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo, the space shuttle, then (SpaceX’s) Dragon — and now Starliner,” he said.

Boeing designed the Starliner to rival SpaceX's prolific Crew Dragon capsule and expand U.S. options for transporting astronauts to the Space Station. On board, Williams will also make history as the first woman to embark on such a mission.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams preparing for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Crew Flight Test Launch on May 6

A difficult start

Problems in development, test flights and other costly setbacks delayed the Starliner's path to the launch pad. Meanwhile, Boeing's rival in NASA's commercial crew program — SpaceX — has become the main provider of transportation for the space agency's astronauts.

Williams and Wilmore were already in their seats aboard the Starliner capsule on May 6 when engineers encountered a problem and halted the launch. The team at United Launch Alliance, which builds the Atlas V rocket, identified a pressure regulating valve on a liquid oxygen tank that needed to be replaced. The part was replaced, but the most recent problem with helium leaking into the Boeing spacecraft atop the rocket caused yet another delay.

When the spacecraft launches as planned, it and the astronauts on board will separate from the Atlas V rocket after reaching orbit, while the Starliner begins firing its own engines. The vehicle will likely spend more than 24 hours gradually making its way toward the space station. Williams and Wilmore are expected to spend about a week in the orbiting laboratory, joining the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already on board, while the Starliner remains docked outside.

The historic crew will then return home aboard the same capsule, which is expected to land by parachute at one of several designated locations in the southwestern United States.

*CNN's Jackie Wattles and Ashley Strickland contributed to this story.

Source: CNN Brasil

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