Boeing Starliner Launch A Success But Helium Leaks Are No Laughing Matter

hero boeing starliner launch
Boeing’s Starliner finally launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida yesterday, but not without issues. NASA reported it knew about one helium leak before launch, but two more became known post launch.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams rocketed into space at 10:52am EDT on Wednesday, after two prior delays caused them to have to exit the Starliner spacecraft before launch. Approximately fifteen minutes after blastoff, Starliner released from the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage, on target to reach the International Space Station (ISS) about 26 hours later. Even with all the success, Starliner was not without issues.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center reported on X, “Teams have identified three helium leaks on the spacecraft. One of these was previously discussed before flight along with a management plan.” The post explained two new leaks appeared post launch, adding, “Two of the affected helium valves have been closed and the spacecraft remains stable.”

nasa boeing starliner helium leaks tweet

The new leaks were spotted just as the two astronauts began preparing for an overnight sleep shift ahead of the upcoming docking at ISS. While the previously known leak traced back to a flange in one manifold on the left-side doghouse pod, another became evident on the right-side of the same doghouse, along with another in the doghouse on the top-side of the service module. The spacecraft houses four doghouse-shaped propulsion pods, all with lines for hydrazine fuel, nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, and helium pressurant routed into thruster packs.

Boeing engineer Brandon Burroughs described the two new helium leaks as “small” during a post-launch broadcast on NASA TV. He added the leaks did not appear during troubleshooting of the previously known leak before launch. This means that three of Starliner’s eight helium manifolds are showing signs of leakage.

The ground crew reported to Wilmore it would isolate the manifolds newly discovered to be leaking helium, while keeping the manifold previously known to be leaking helium open.

Steve Stitch, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, remarked about the known leaks, “It’s a tough system. This is a high-pressure system, and helium is a very small, tiny molecule, and it tends to leak.”

As of right now, the mission is still on target to dock with ISS at approximately 12:15pm ET today. NASA posted on X teams will continue to monitor “the vehicle’s status and continue monitoring manifold leak rates.” Burroughs added, “This was unexpected, and we plan for cases like this.”
Tags:  space, NASA, boeing, iss, starliner