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HomeTechBoeing Starliner Delays May Keep NASA Crew on ISS Until August

Boeing Starliner Delays May Keep NASA Crew on ISS Until August

Passant Rabie

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft remains docked to the International Space Station (ISS) while engineering teams on the ground carry out tests to better understand the spacecraft. The mission was originally slated for a week in space, but now NASA hopes to return a crew of two astronauts on board the Starliner by no earlier than the end of July.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule launched atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket on June 5, carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. Since its shaky docking to the space station, Starliner’s performance during its ascent has raised concern that the spacecraft might not be able to transport its crew back to Earth. “I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem,” Williams said during a news conference from the ISS on Wednesday.

During its approach to the space station, five of Starliner’s thrusters failed, of which four were recovered.Starliner also developed five helium leaks, one of which had been identified prior to its launch. The engineering teams believe the leaks may be related to the activity of the thrusters.

The mission was originally scheduled for eight days, but the crew’s return has been delayed several times while ground teams conduct tests on the vehicle and collect data before giving the green light for the astronauts to return to Earth. Despite the several delays, NASA has constantly reassured the media that the astronauts are not stranded in orbit, and that Starliner can undock from the ISS at any point and return the crew safely. This prolonged stay in space, NASA officials insist, is a choice.

“We have a nice opportunity to almost use the International Space Station as a temporary hangar to take our time and understand the spacecraft before we undock and return,”Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters on Wednesday.

The Crewed Flight Test is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and is meant to transport crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) under a $4.3 billion contract with the space agency. NASA’s other commercial partner, SpaceX, has so far launched eight crews to the space station.

This week, NASA and Boeing started testing a brand new unit of the Starliner spacecraft at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in an attempt to replicate the thruster issues encountered during its flight. “The temperatures we’ve been able to achieve are not quite what we would have hoped for based on the flight data,” Stich admitted. “The teams are off looking at that data and trying to determine the next steps.”

For now, Starliner is sitting pretty in orbit but it will need to come down eventually. The ISS crew is due for a handover in mid-August, with NASA’s Crew-9 set to launch to orbit on board SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft (I know, so awkward). Astronauts Wilmore and Williams will need to depart from the ISS before that happens.

“I think we’re really working to try to follow the data and see when’s the earliest that we could target for undocking and landing,” Stich said. “I think some of the data suggests, optimistically, maybe it’s by the end of July, but we’ll just follow the data each step at a time, and then at the right time, figure out when the right undocking opportunity is.”

Despite this much uncertainty about a return date, NASA still insists that Starliner is ready to go home at any moment. “The prime option today is to return Butch and Sunny on Starliner,” Stich said. “Right now, we don’t see any reason that that wouldn’t be the case.”

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