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Boeing’s first astronaut flight was cut short by computer problems

Last-minute computer problems thwarted a launch attempt for Boeing’s first astronaut flight, the latest in a series of delays over the years.

Two NASA astronauts were strapped into the company’s Starliner capsule when the countdown was automatically stopped at three minutes and 50 seconds by the computer system that controls the final minutes before liftoff.

With only a fraction of a second to go, there was no time to solve the final problem and the launch was aborted.

Technicians rushed to the pad to help astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams out of the capsule atop the fully fueled Atlas V rocket at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Within an hour after the launch was aborted, the hatch was reopened.

The team couldn’t get to the computers to fix the problem until all the fuel was gone from the rocket, said Tory Bruno, CEO of the rocket maker United Launch Alliance.

Bruno said one of the three redundant computers on the pad near the rocket was slow. All three must work well to proceed with a launch, he said.

If it were an easy fix, the next launch attempt could happen on Sunday. Wednesday would be the next possibility after this weekend.

“This is the business we’re in,” said Boeing’s Mark Nappi. “Everything has to work perfectly.”

It was the second launch attempt. The first attempt on May 6 was postponed due to leak checks and missile repairs.

NASA wants a backup for SpaceX, which has been flying astronauts since 2020.

Boeing was supposed to launch its first crew around the same time as SpaceX, but its first test flight without anyone on board in 2019 was plagued by serious software problems and never reached the space station.

A repeat in 2022 fared better, but parachute problems and flammable materials later caused more delays. A small helium leak in the capsule’s propulsion system last month came on top of a problem with the rocket valves.

More valve problems occurred two hours before Saturday’s scheduled launch, but the team used a backup circuit to get the ground equipment valves working to replenish fuel for the rocket’s upper stage. The launch controllers were relieved to continue, but the computer system known as the ground launch sequencer put an end to the effort.

“This is obviously emotionally disappointing,” NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, the backup pilot, said from the neighboring Kennedy Space Center shortly after the countdown ended.

But he said delays were part of space flight. “We’re going to have a great launch in our future.”