Boeing Starliner astronauts still stuck on ISS as engineers scramble to fix issues

Click to play video: 'Boeing Starliner astronauts still stuck on ISS as engineers scramble to fix issues'
Boeing Starliner astronauts still stuck on ISS as engineers scramble to fix issues
WATCH: Two NASA astronauts are preparing to spend more unexpected time in space. Engineers are scrambling to fix issues with the Boeing Starliner capsule, plagued with technical difficulties. The astronauts are stranded, but safe, on the International Space Station. As Jackson Proskow explains, their brief trip into orbit has stretched into nearly a month-long stay. – Jun 21, 2024

Another week, another Boeing Starliner delay.

NASA and Boeing have announced, for the third time, they are again delaying the return of the Starliner from the International Space Station (ISS) to Earth. It marks another blow for the vessel, which has been hampered by technical issues.

And, now, veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are facing an uncertain return date. The space agency initially projected their mission would last anywhere from eight to 10 days, but now it’s going to last at least 20.

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This week, NASA announced that Williams and Wilmore will return no earlier than June 26, as teams of engineers on Earth scramble to sort out all the issues that have plagued the vessel since launch.

Click to play video: 'NASA, Boeing delay Starliner’s return to Earth for 3rd time'
NASA, Boeing delay Starliner’s return to Earth for 3rd time

Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, told a news conference Tuesday that his team “really want to work through the remainder of the data,” but sees no reason why the Starliner won’t be able to bring the astronauts back home.

The Starliner spacecraft on NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test approaches the International Space Station while orbiting 263 miles above Quebec. NASA

Williams and Wilmore were launched aboard Starliner June 5 and arrived at the ISS following a 24-hour flight in which the spacecraft encountered four helium leaks and five failures of its 28 maneuvering thrusters.

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It’s the Starliner’s first flight with a crew and the crucial last test in a much-delayed and over-budget program before NASA can certify the spacecraft for routine astronaut missions. If approved, it will be added as a second U.S. crew vehicle in the fleet, operating alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

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The new delay of the return of Starliner is intended “to give our team a little bit more time to look at the data, do some analysis and make sure we’re really ready to come home,” said Stich.

Stich said the Starliner is approved to spend up to 45 days at the ISS if needed, and it’s not unusual for astronauts to unexpectedly be required to extend their stay at the space station.

However, the most recent delay announcement isn’t exactly bolstering public faith in the Boeing craft. The latest in-flight problems follow years of other challenges Boeing has faced with Starliner, including a 2019 uncrewed test failure where dozens of software glitches, design problems and management issues nixed its ability to dock to the ISS. A 2022 repeat uncrewed test had a successful docking, but uncovered additional software issues and problems with some of the capsule’s thrusters.

Sitch noted in a news conference earlier this month that is possible the issues from 2022 may not have been fully resolved.

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“We thought we had fixed that problem,” Stich said, according to CNN, adding, “I think we’re missing something fundamental that’s going on inside the thruster.”

Last week, when a fifth helium leak was detected, NASA said it was assessing the impact of the leaks on the remainder of the mission, which includes undocking from the ISS and re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

“Engineers evaluated the helium supply based on current leak rates and determined that Starliner has plenty of margin to support the return trip from the station,” NASA wrote in its update last week, seeming confident about a safe return to Earth.

“Only seven hours of free-flight time is needed to perform a normal end of mission, and Starliner currently has enough helium left in its tanks to support 70 hours of free flight activity following undocking.”

Helium is used to pressurize the spacecraft’s reaction control system (RCS) maneuvering thrusters, allowing them to fire, according to Boeing.

Stich told reporters Tuesday that Wilmore and Williams have been using their extra time in space to test Starliner’s various systems in orbit, coordinating with ground crews to analyze the data and determine just how much of a concern the thruster and helium-leak issues really are.

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He said that testing over the weekend, on June 15, gave the team confidence that the Starliner is recovering.

“Saturday was a big day of understanding that helium leaks have gone down, and also understanding the thrusters have recovered, and that we can count on the thrusters for the remainder of the flight,” he said.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands at White Sands Missile Range’s Space Harbor, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in New Mexico. Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

However, re-entry is often the most perilous for spacecraft, and the Starliner will hit Earth’s thick atmosphere while travelling more than 22 times the speed of sound while temperatures on the spacecraft’s exterior will reach roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

And that’s all before the Starliner will deploy a set of parachutes, recently redesigned and tested by Boeing, to slow down the vessel before it hits the ground – the first time a U.S.-made capsule will parachute to terra firma, rather than landing in the ocean, an approach Boeing has said will make it easier to recover and refurbish for its next flight.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk criticized Boeing about a month before Starliner’s launch, writing on X that the company had “too many non-technical managers.”

with files from Reuters

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