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Starliner astronauts’ return home delayed once again, still docked at ISS

NASA astronauts Suni Williams, left, and Butch Wilmore talk to family members as they leave the operations and checkout building for a trip to launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. John Raoux / The Associated Press

Problems with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, still docked at the International Space Station (ISS), have delayed the capsule’s return to Earth yet again.

NASA and Boeing announced, now for the fourth time, that the Starliner’s departure date would be delayed until next week at the earliest, as engineers work to resolve a long list of issues experienced since its liftoff on June 5.

The announcement, made Friday night, did not specify a new return date, but the space agency indicated the return of the craft’s inaugural crew won’t be until at least July.

Since its June 5 liftoff, the capsule has had five helium leaks, five manoeuvring thrusters go dead and a propellant valve fail to close completely, prompting the crew in space and mission managers in Houston to spend more time than expected pursuing fixes mid-mission.

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This means veteran astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will be expected to remain aboard the ISS for much longer than originally planned – the original mission plan was to stay just a week to 10 days.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams, left, and Butch Wilmore pose for a photo after leaving the operations and checkout building for a trip to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Chris O'Meara / The Associated Press

Last week, NASA announced that Williams and Wilmore will return no earlier than June 26, with Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, telling a news conference 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. But Friday’s announcement nullifies those plans.

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

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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Stich previously 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. An anonymous source familiar with flight planning told Reuters that, if absolutely necessary, the Starliner could stay docked at the ISS for up to 72 days, using various backup systems.

The source also told the outlet the latest targeted return date is July 6.

In his latest statement, Stich said that “we are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process. We are letting the data drive our decision making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance.”

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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.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore take their historic ride on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner as it makes its first human spaceflight on Wednesday, June 5, 2024, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Space Launch Complex 41. Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

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

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

Last week, he told reporters Tuesday that Wilmore and Williams have been using their extra time in space to test Starliner’s various systems in orbit, co-ordinating 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 on June 15 gave the team confidence that the Starliner is recovering.

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, with temperatures on the spacecraft’s exterior reaching roughly 3,000 F.

And that’s all before the Starliner deploys 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.

Once NASA officials give the team a go-ahead for a return, Starliner’s thrusters would be used to undock the capsule from the ISS and begin the roughly six-hour journey home.

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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

If Starliner is deemed incapable of safely returning Wilmore and Williams to Earth, one option would be sending them home aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which ferried four astronauts to the station in March and is able to fit more people in an emergency.

That scenario, considered unlikely, would undoubtedly be embarrassing for Boeing. But NASA and Boeing officials, as well as engineers familiar with the program, told Reuters nothing about Starliner’s current problems indicates this would be needed.

In such a scenario, Starliner’s fate would depend on various factors, including the extent of its technical issues.

— with files from Reuters

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