Starliner astronauts in good spirits, ‘confident’ they’ll return to Earth safely

Click to play video: 'Starliner crew stuck in orbit longer'
Starliner crew stuck in orbit longer
WATCH: For many -- a delayed flight could mean some unwanted expenses, or even a ruined vacation. But for a pair of veteran NASA astronauts -- it's meant a few extra weeks in space. What was supposed to be a week-long trip to the international space station for Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams has quickly stretched into over a month-long stay. And as Nathaniel Dove explains -- their return could still be weeks away.

The astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft are confident they’ll get back to Earth safely aboard the vessel, despite weeks of malfunctions and glitches that have left them stuck in space much longer than expected.

Test pilots Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore appeared in a NASA-hosted livestream Wednesday from the International Space Station (ISS) looking happy and healthy. They were chipper as they answered reporters’ questions.

“We’ve been through a lot of simulations for this spacecraft to go through all sorts of iterations and failures, and I think where we are right now and what we know right now … I feel confident,” Williams said, next to his crewmate and in front of a U.S. flag.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore appear in their first live news conference from the Starliner. NASA

“I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem. I feel confident that if we had to — if there was a problem with the International Space Station — we’d get in our spacecraft, undock, talk to our team and figure out the best way to come home,” said Williams, her hair comedically splayed out above her amid the lack of gravity.

Story continues below advertisement

It was their first news conference while in orbit, and the pair said they expect to return to Earth once thruster testing is complete, although they did not give a timeline or date.

But they’re not complaining about getting to spend extra time in space, and said they’re having a good time helping the crew aboard the ISS, as well as running science experiments and tests while in orbit.

Wilmore said they went into the mission knowing there would be kinks, saying, “This is the world of test. This is a tough business.”

“Human spaceflight is not easy in any regime, and there have been multiple issues with every spacecraft that’s ever been designed, and that’s just the nature of what we do,” Wilmore said. “You know that mantra, ‘Failure is not an option.'”

Story continues below advertisement

The astronauts even did a little bit of zero-gravity physical comedy to prove they’re in good spirits, with Williams doing backflips to close out the livestream, as Wilmore laughed.

Despite being stuck in space for much longer than planned, the astronauts seem to be in good spirits. NASA

It’s the inaugural crewed flight for the Boeing-built Starliner, a massively over-budget project that’s been plagued by setbacks and delays from the beginning.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

But listening to Wilmore’s praise for the vehicle, you would have no idea that this particular flight has been in space for weeks longer than expected, nor that it has suffered from failed docking attempts, multiple helium leaks, thruster issues and more.

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

“Launch was spectacular. I mean, truly amazing,” Wilmore said in Wednesday’s briefing. “And then we got into our operational capabilities checks, and the spacecraft performed unbelievably well.”

Story continues below advertisement

He addressed the fact that he had to take manual control of the craft at one point, when several thrusters failed as the Starliner approached its docking port at the ISS.

“Thankfully, we had practiced and we had gotten certified for manual control, and so we took over manual control for over an hour,” Wilmore said.

At a second briefing Wednesday, this time from officials at NASA and Boeing, they said the Starliner teams are also conducting tests on the ground in New Mexico, which will wrap up this weekend. The testing plans have faced a “hiccup” in the form of Hurricane Beryl, which made landfall with the southern U.S. earlier this week.

Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said on Wednesday that the “big driver” for timing is getting the astronauts home before the SpaceX Crew-9 mission arrives with more astronauts in August.

Story continues below advertisement

“That’s kind of a back end. I think we’re really working to try to follow the data and see when’s the earliest that we could target for undock and landing,” Stich said, adding that, “optimistically, maybe it’s by the end of July.”

And while no firm return is on the horizon, NASA said the astronauts would appear in another livestream before they return the Starliner into our atmosphere.

A mission of unplanned challenges

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

This means Wilmore and Williams have extended their stay aboard the ISS for much longer than originally planned — the original mission plan was to stay just a week to 10 days, but the pair left Earth 35 days ago, more than a month.

Story continues below advertisement

It’s the Starliner’s first flight with a crew and the crucial last test 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.

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.

In this photo provided by NASA, Boeing Crew Flight Test astronauts Butch Wilmore, left, and Suni Williams pose for a portrait inside the vestibule between the forward port on the International Space Station’s Harmony module and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on June 13, 2024. NASA via AP

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.

Story continues below advertisement

A 2022 repeat uncrewed test had a successful docking, but uncovered additional software issues and problems with some of the capsule’s thrusters.

Sponsored content