Florida Humidity Grounded Starliner


Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft’s valves may have frozen because they couldn’t handle Florida’s humidity, according to a report by United Press International. UPI quotes NASA and Boeing spokespeople as saying the famous Florida stickiness may have caused corrosion in the valves that kept them from functioning prior to a an uncrewed test launch of the capsule in August. The fuel oxidizer that flows through some of those valves apparently reacted to the humidity and the resulting corrosion locked up the valves.

“It was a humid time of year, in August,” Michelle Parker, Boeing’s chief engineer for space and launch systems, said. “We had looked at the humidity, and we’ve physically seen some evidence of condensation within the service module.” Boeing is reportedly looking at adding heaters to the valves or using desiccants to soak up the moisture to fix the problem. NASA spokesman Steve Stich said the agency remains confident Boeing will sort out the issue. “We have every confidence that Boeing will be flying crew soon,” he told UPI.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. They are leaving this thing outside in Florida next to the ocean… only a rocket scientist would do that.

    • Yeah, perhaps they should have used corrosion resistant materials. Funny, this one guy is building entire spacecraft out of stainless steel.

  2. From cost controller — Boeing Starliner.
    To: Michelle Parker, Boeing’s chief engineer for space and launch systems

    Michelle — I could not sleep last night after seeing that you proposed using inox taps for the Starliner fuel oxidizer plumbing system.
    A quick search on line, backed by a trip to my local DIY warehouse, showed they are, on average $6.23 more expensive than standard taps, used drip free by millions of people in this country.
    When will the message that every cent must account eventually get through?
    It hurts me to say that I will have to attach this memo to your annual evaluation record.

    • The exact reason I no longer leave my airplane in FL when I’m gone during summer time. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the impact of incessant high humidity. Keeping it in a hangar actually makes it worse because the same absolute humidity outside seeps into the hangar where it’s a few degrees cooler causing higher relative humidity with little air moving ergo condensation issues. I actually had mold grow on the interior plastic and foam backed rugs kept moisture against the seat rails causing them to go bad due to corrosion. I’ve seen condensation on hangar floors, even. An airplane MUST be taken out into the sun, flown and “aired out” regularly. It’d be no different for a space craft. Worse, actually, with the super cold fluids and gases involved. And Boeing didn’t figure this out?? OH … isn’t that the same company that had problems with mcas airplanes? They’re NEVER going to live THAT debacle down. Sum ting wong in the Boeing ‘head shed.’

  3. Nitrogen tetroxide is nasty stuff and tricky to work with. But we’ve been building spacecraft and launching them from Florida for sixty years! I would expect the humidity would be a solved problem…

    • My thoughts exactly Mr. Brooks. Hydrazine and NO4 have been used in rockets since the 1960s and pretty well all of them were launched in the Florida heat and humidity. I am really having a hard time figuring out how their valves would let the moisture in without letting the oxidizer leak OUT. The astronauts that were reassigned from the Starliner to other flights are probably happy they got the new spots.

    • There was a time when the space race generated a generation of engineers during and after WWII. Mistakes were made back then in the pioneering science of rockets when we ‘imported’ rocket scientists that ultimately landed men on the moon. Boeing, mainly an airplane manufacturer may not be completely stocked with engineers as NASA did in a bygone era. What was done in the ’60’s utilized millions of people from all walks of life. New engineers may not have the well rounded experience from older generations making their bones.

  4. This is the result we get when we educate our youth in scientific trends and issues, and not…well, science. Apparently our young engineers are not taught how to design for the environment we live in, they are taught the prevailing theories on how to change the environment.

    • They also have to consider how science makes them FEEL and take into account whether or not anyone is offended by it.

    • NASA suffered three major events wth deaths; the Challenger destruction from launching in unusual freezing conditions that shrunk seals in the solid rocket boosters, the Shuttle destruction when a leading edge was damaged during initial launch when a piece of foam insulation broke off and holed carbon fiber, and Apollo-1 when 100% oxygen was used in the Apollo when an electrical arc from a switch ignited, the oxygen fed fire killing three astronauts. Each event was studied with conclusions to mitigate and/or eliminate then from repeating. Each generation willing to learn from the mistakes of others tends to progress further. Mankind make mistakes.

  5. I worked at a well-known Aerospace valve manufacturer for many years. It is a very difficult, complex and expensive procedure. There are design criteria to consider, qualification tests , and Acceptance tests which are very rigorous and thorough. Wanna-be rocket scientists are quick to criticize but do not have any expertise in space environments. Were those valves purged with nitrogen? Is the material correct for the application? There’s a lot of possible causes of failures, and just saying Humidity is perhaps an over-simplification. Contamination is the number one culprit with valves. Yes, heaters have been used for many years, but how long do you leave them on . And you don’t just grab an off-the -shelf fuel/oxidizer valve that was used on an old Delta II or Redstone and use it in todays designs. Its a learning process, and Space is HARD!

  6. Taking a Giant Step Backward, this makes me wonder why Florida was chosen for a Launch Site in the first place. There are drier climes that have good weather. Mojave, New Mexico, West Texas.

    I suppose that proximity to the ocean, where First Stages could splash down, was a factor. Or maybe where rockets could blow up without hurting a population center.

    Still, I gotta wonder how politics was involved in the decision.

    Anyone have some insight about this?

    • The ideal launch site for most orbits is near the equator and the ocean. Rockets launching to the east need a lot of empty area to drop stages on, so the east coast is best. The southern tip of Texas would work too, which is why SpaceX is building a launch site there.

  7. As I remember from back in the early days of rocketry, the rotational speed of the earth (west to east) was used to give a little boost to the liftoff. Which is why Vandenburg AFB wasn’t used. And, the big ol’ empty ocean was a great place to “kill” one if needed.

    So kind of a two fold purpose.

  8. Mr Foyt is certainly correct relative to the positioning of the Johnson Space Center. However, geography plays a large part in the selection of launch sites. For many years VAndenburg AFB was used for POLAR orbit launches for this reason. And no, you don’t want to be launching heavy rockets near populated areas. So depending on the type of orbit desired, Polar, West to East , geostationary etc, launch sites may vary, and limit the risk of harm when one suffers an unplanned disassembly after launch. Also, you want to stay away from airways. If you remember, Space X got in some hot water with the FAA over launch times due to location. In Space Shuttle days, when an orbiter would land in California due to Wx at the Cape, it would be ferried back to Fla on that 747 because FLA was a better launch site. The SRB’s were retrieved from the water after launch and refurbished for another use. I worked on the Actuators.