Boeing’s Starliner launch could face delay of several months

Aerospace company likely will need to remove space capsule for repairs to problematic valves

Boeing Co. ’s Starliner space capsule launch could be delayed several months as the company will likely need to remove it from atop a rocket for repairs, people familiar with the matter said.

Such a delay would be a setback for Boeing’s space program. The company has spent years developing the Starliner and was supposed to launch it late last month to dock with the International Space Station, without crew on board—after a failed attempt a year and a half ago. Ultimately, the capsule is supposed to ferry astronauts to the space station.

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Boeing engineers have been working to repair a problem with some of the valves in a propulsion system on the Starliner that was discovered earlier this month while the vehicle sat on a launchpad. The company first said it was investigating the valve issues last week, and on Monday disclosed that 13 valves had failed to open as expected during preflight checks.

Nine of the valves are now functioning and Boeing engineers are working to address the other four, the company said Thursday.

"Over the past couple of days, our team has taken the necessary time to safely access and test the affected valves," said John Vollmer, a Boeing executive overseeing the Starliner.

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The company also said it would work with NASA and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between it and Lockheed Martin Corp. that provides the rocket to take the Starliner to space, to determine a date for another launch "when the spacecraft is ready."

Boeing and NASA on Monday said they hadn’t given up on potentially launching the Starliner in August. NASA said then the earliest possible date for another attempt would be in the middle of this month.

Other missions are also planned for the space station, complicating when the Starliner may try to reach the facility without crew members again. NASA has said a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo from Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the formal name of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, would launch for the station later this month.

In this image provided by NASA, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard sits at Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, July 29, 2021 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. in Florida. Boeing's Orbital Flight Test-2, sc (Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP / AP Newsroom)

The agency also plans to launch a ship to study asteroids no earlier than mid-October from the location at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, where engineers are currently working on the Starliner. NASA has said previously any date for another Starliner launch would protect the asteroid mission.

On Friday, officials from NASA and Boeing are scheduled to discuss the Starliner at a press event. The space agency said Thursday it was discussing the mission status with Boeing.

As teams continued to work on the valve problem, separating the Starliner from the rocket appeared increasingly necessary, according to people familiar with the matter.

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Ahead of the Starliner do-over, NASA and Boeing officials in July said they had subjected the spacecraft to rigorous, increased testing to ensure a successful test.

In December 2019, a Boeing software error prevented the Starliner from getting into the correct orbit and it never docked with the space station. Another potentially catastrophic error was fixed during the mission to prevent damaging the spacecraft’s protective heat shield.

The 2019 botched space mission came as Boeing was struggling with the fallout of two fatal crashes of its 737 MAX passenger aircraft. Company executives have since sought to revamp how the company handles engineering, safety and quality issues.

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NASA has said it wants to have two U.S.-based companies available to transport astronauts to and from the space station. Right now, the agency has one confirmed provider, SpaceX, in place for those flights. Its second option is to contract for seats on Russian rockets.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Micah Maidenberg at micah.maidenberg@wsj.com