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The launch of the Boeing Starliner has been postponed again due to a problem with the spacecraft

The launch of the Boeing Starliner has been postponed again due to a problem with the spacecraft

The first Starliner mission to carry astronauts into space has been postponed again — until at least May 21 — due to a problem with the spacecraft's propulsion system, Boeing said Tuesday.

The Starliner mission, with two NASA astronauts on board, was scheduled to launch from Florida last week until a technical problem with the Atlas 5 rocket led to postponement to Friday, May 17. This is the latest postponement of a program that is years behind schedule and more than $1.5 billion over budget.

Boeing said in a statement that a new technical problem now affecting the Starliner itself has led to another postponement until at least next Tuesday.

“Starliner teams are working to address a small helium leak discovered in the spacecraft's service module,” Boeing said, adding that engineers traced the leak to a component in one of the propulsion system's 28 control nozzles, which is used for ground-based maneuvering. It rotates in orbit.

Boeing has been developing the Starliner for more than a decade to provide NASA with a second American spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, built under the same NASA program, launched astronauts into space for the first time in 2020.

The latest Starliner mission, called the Crewed Flight Test, is intended to be the final test before the spacecraft is certified by the US space agency for routine astronaut flights to the International Space Station. Boeing will operate an unmanned Starliner flight to the International Space Station in 2022 after years of technical and management problems.

NASA officials and Boeing engineers will conduct tests and try to fix the helium leak before the next potential launch window on May 21 at 4:43 p.m. ET (2043 GMT). Helium is used in the Starliner to compress the fuel that powers the spacecraft's engines to maneuver into orbit.

An Atlas 5 rocket, built by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA), takes the Starliner into space. Before last week's Starliner launch, ULA discovered a faulty valve on the Atlas 5 and removed the rocket from the launch pad to replace the valve.

Starliner sensors first detected suspicious traces of helium in the propulsion system while the spacecraft was on the launch pad last week, but those detections did not alert engineers at the time, according to a person familiar with mission operations.

Boeing engineers examined the helium results while ULA replaced the faulty valve on the Atlas 5. The source said they determined more testing and inspection was needed to meet stringent safety standards to begin the mission.